Describing the current rates of suicide for American veterans as “unacceptable,” U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, D–Hawaii, today called for the passage of a new bill that would, at least on paper, make life a little easier for people seeking treatment from the U.S. Veterans Administration.
“It is simply unacceptable that 22 American veterans commit suicide each day,” said Hirono in a Jan. 21 news release sent out by her office. “Veterans have to face too much red tape in our bureaucratic system in order to receive help and this legislation will address staffing needs, and improve access and effectiveness of mental health care available to our veterans. We owe a tremendous debt to our service members who have sacrificed for our country and our veterans deserve access to the best mental health services we can provide. I am proud to cosponsor the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act and hope that after today’s bipartisan action by the Veterans’ Committee the full Senate will pass the bill quickly.”
The bill, designated HR 203 and known as the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, would “direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to provide for the conduct of annual evaluations of mental health care and suicide prevention programs of the Department of Veterans Affairs and “require a pilot program on loan repayment for psychiatrists who agree to serve in the Veterans Health Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” among other things, according to the bill text. Clay Hunt was a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who, though working with troubled veterans after his discharge, killed himself in 2011.
The bill is currently enjoying bipartisan support. Today, the Senate Veterans Committee (which includes Hirono) passed the bill unanimously. The bill already passed the U.S. House of Representatives, 403-0. If the bill passes the full Senate, it goes to President Barack Obama.
It’s possible an earlier version of the bill, designated HR 5059 but also named for Clay Hunt, could have passed late last year, but in one of his last acts before retiring, U.S. Senator Tom Coburn, R–Oklahoma, blocked the bill, effectively killing it. Despite speaking on the Senate floor for a little over nine minutes about how jacked up the VA is these days, Coburn said the bill would do nothing to help struggling veterans.
“I’m going to be objecting to this bill because throws money [away] and doesn’t solve the real problem,” he said on the Senate floor in mid-December (click here for video of his remarks). “And I know most of my colleagues disagree with me on that… Don’t pass another bill! Hold the VA accountable. There should be a hearing every week on every aspect of every aspect of everything that the VA does for the whole next two years!”
Two times during in his Senate floor remarks, Coburn–a medical doctor–said the had personally “failed” veterans he’d been attempting to treat. The issue is personal for me as well. Almost exactly a year ago, a close friend of mine who had spent a decade in the U.S. Army and did one tour in Iraq killed himself six months after his honorable discharge. You can read about him here.
Photo of Arlington National Cemetery: Andrew Bossi/Wikimedia Commons