A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Monday designed to improve access to mental health services for troops and veterans and strengthen the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments' suicide prevention efforts.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention bill would require the Pentagon and VA to submit to an independent review of their suicide prevention programs.
It also would establish a website to provide consolidated information on mental health services available to veterans and seeks to improve VA's recruitment efforts for quality psychiatrists by establishing a student loan reimbursement program for doctors who sign on to work for VA for a number of years.
Clay Hunt was a former Marine who died in 2011 by suicide after having actively sought treatment for combat-related depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Before his death, Hunt performed humanitarian work in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and was a key member of a group of former military personnel who formed the disaster relief organization Team Rubicon.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Ark.; and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., co-sponsored the bill to provide "additional resources for veterans who suffer from mental health disorders that place them on higher risk of suicide," according to a release
"Our nation has a long way to go to decrease the rate of suicide among our veterans and we must do much better in fulfilling our responsibilities to care for those who have risked everything on behalf of their fellow Americans," the senators wrote.
House lawmakers in July introduced their own Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans bill — legislation that would require VA to submit to yearly evaluations of its suicide and mental health programs, team with the National Guard to improve care for members and establish a peer support outreach program for veterans.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.; Tim Walz, D-Minn.; and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., also would require the Defense Department to establish a review process for troops who received unfavorable discharges possibly because of behavioral problems related to traumatic brain injury or PTSD.
In July testimony before the the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Hunt's mother, Susan Selke, said the legislation would have helped her son and she urged its passage to save other veterans from suffering.
"Clay's story details the urgency needed in addressing this issue," she said. "Despite his proactive and open approach to seeking care to address his injuries, the VA system did not adequately address his needs."
Selke, other family members and veterans advocates are scheduled to testify Wednesday before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on military and veterans suicides.
Joining them will be Dr. Harold Kudler, chief consultant for mental health services for the Veterans Health Administration.
"An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day, a shocking and unacceptable reality," wrote the sponsors of the Senate Clay Hunt suicide prevention bill. "This bipartisan legislation [would] improve and modernize the suicide prevention programs and resources available to our fighting men and women."