After another unexpected delay, the Clay Hunt suicide prevention bill is headed to the White House to become law.
The measure received unanimous support in the Senate on Tuesday afternoon, about 18 hours after senators originally had planned to approve the measure. Nationwide weather problems stalled many lawmakers' return travel to Capitol Hill on Monday, postponing for a day the celebration of those who support the bill.
The delay was just the latest snag for advocates, who have been anxiously lobbying for the suicide prevention measures for the past year.
After months of legislative inaction through most of 2014, congressional leaders rushed the measure to the House and Senate floors in December in hopes of last-minute passage. But that plan flopped when retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked the legislation over redundancy and cost issues.
With Coburn gone and the House reapproving the bill three weeks ago, the Senate's move all but finalizes the legislation. The plan is backed by the Veterans Affairs Department and a host of veterans' groups, and is expected to be one of the first measures President Obama signs into law this year.
Supporters say that can't happen soon enough.
"The tragedies are daily, the tragedies are compounding, and we must find an end to it," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "We owe it to our veterans to have the best mental health available to them."
VA officials estimate as many as 22 veterans a day commit suicide. The Clay Hunt bill, named for a Marine veteran activist who took his own life in 2011, would require an annual evaluation of VA suicide prevention programs, to determine how effective they are at helping troubled veterans.
The measure also would require VA to develop a new website better detailing existing mental health resources and call for new peer support programs for struggling veterans.
And it would launch a pilot program to repay student loans of psychiatry students, helping VA officials more quickly fill those specialty vacancies.
Veterans' groups have criticized the department for being too slow and noncompetitive in many aspects of mental health hiring, and see the loan paybacks as a valuable incentive.
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee's senior Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, called the measure a downpayment on improving VA services.
"It is the beginning, not the end, of our commitment and our solutions to problems," Blumenthal said. "It is a worthwhile measure to take limited, targeted steps ... to keep faith with our veterans and their mental health needs."