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Clay Hunt bill to overhaul veterans suicide programs passes in House

By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 12, 2015

WASHINGTON — The House on Monday passed a bill named after deceased Marine Corps veteran Clay Hunt that would overhaul VA suicide prevention programs.

The vote was a crucial first step by supporters who hope to pass the bill through the new Congress after it was blocked in December by retiring budget hawk Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. There were 403 votes for the bill, no opposition and 30 lawmakers who did not vote. Now, it heads to the Senate.

The legislation calls for a one-stop website with suicide prevention resources for veterans, more Department of Veteran Affairs psychiatrists and an independent review of current department programs.

Hunt, who suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder, committed suicide in 2011. His parents and veterans service organizations back the overhaul as a way to reduce an average of 22 vet suicides daily in the United States.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., co-sponsored the bill. Despite the VA’s growing budget, staff and programs in recent years, Miller said on the House floor, “We have not seen a corresponding decrease in the number of our nation’s heroes who take their lives.”

He said the bill will improve VA efficiency and increase awareness among veterans of available resources.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., introduced the bill, and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq veteran, also co-sponsored it.

 “Since we passed this bill and it failed in the Senate, 750 veterans have taken their lives,” Walz said while urging support before the vote.

The bill:

  • Provides for annual evaluations of VA mental health care and suicide prevention programs;
  • Establishes a pilot program to repay loans to psychiatrists who agree to work at the VA;
  • Creates a centralized VA website with information for veterans on all department mental health services;
  • Establishes a pilot program to assist veterans transitioning from active-duty service with access to mental health care;
  • Helps improve VA collaboration with nonprofit mental health organizations.

Passage in the House was expected because lawmakers there unanimously passed the bill last year. But its fate in the upper chamber of Congress has been more complicated.

Senators were poised to approve it in the final hours of the 2014 session, but Coburn blocked a vote and argued that the VA could make the changes without new legislation that will eventually cost $22 million.

The move drew the ire of the veteran community. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American, a veterans’ service group that has been a key supporter, said the cost is small in the context of the federal budget and would provide important changes to VA suicide prevention programs.

Now that Coburn is gone, the Clay Hunt bill has a high chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate, where support was growing earlier this month. IAVA said it had virtually unanimous support last year and is likely to have the same this session, though some new lawmakers have yet to stake out positions.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., filed the bill last year with 21 co-sponsors and said last week he again plans to sponsor it. No Senate action had been scheduled Monday.

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

Susan Selke, whose son Clay Hunt committed suicide after battling with war-related PTSD, testifies before the House Veterans Affairs' Committe on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, July 10, 2014.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

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