Congress approves major bill aiming to prevent veteran suicides
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 23, 2020
WASHINGTON — The House passed sweeping bipartisan legislation Wednesday that would give up to $174 million during the next five years to state and local organizations that provide suicide-prevention services to veterans and their families.
The House approved the bill without objection. It now goes to the White House, where President Donald Trump is expected to sign it into law.
The bill, titled the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, gained the support of the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs, dozens of veterans service organizations and Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said it was the “most significant” bill regarding veteran’s mental health care to come out of the committee.
“While this legislation puts in place critical care, services and support that will save veterans’ lives, my hope is it will also serve as a signal to our veterans, service members and families that they are never alone,” he said on the Senate floor.
In part, the Hannon act creates a grant program that would allow up to $750,000 to be awarded to community organizations.
The legislation includes dozens of measures in addition to the new grant program. One requires the VA to establish a plan for boosting its mental health staff, and another creates a scholarship program to increase staff at Vet Centers.
There are several measures to increase research into mental health problems and suicide. The VA will be asked to research hyperbaric oxygen therapy, as well as the possibility that living at high altitudes increases suicide risk.
The bill also mandates the Government Accountability Office and the VA Office of Inspector General to initiate investigations into a host of issues, including one on the VA mental health workforce and others on VA Vet Centers and the effectiveness of the agency’s suicide-prevention outreach. The watchdog agencies are also being asked to look at how the department handles veterans who are at risk for suicide, as well as a possible link between prescription medication and suicide.
Another measure requires the VA to create a website that can be a centralized source for female veterans about the benefits and health care services available to them.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who sponsored the bill with Moran, said he hoped the bill’s passage sent a message to all Americans “that Congress can come together during politically turbulent times to do the right thing and support those who have sacrificed on our behalf.”
The Hannon act was named for a retired Navy commander who died by suicide in 2018 at age 46.
“My family is overjoyed that this critical bill has been passed by the House,” Kim Parrott, Hannon’s sister, said in a statement Wednesday. “Not only does this honor my brother’s legacy, it provides closure for my family. Most importantly, this legislation is a beacon of light to so many more veterans and their families on their journey home from military service to civilian life.”
The House approved the legislation as part of a deal with the Senate. In exchange for passing the Hannon act, the House is expecting the Senate to approve one of its bills — the Veterans’ COMPACT Act.
The COMPACT Act includes nine provisions, one of which orders the VA to provide free care to all veterans in mental health crises. The bill creates an education program for families and caregivers of veterans with mental health issues, and it requires the VA police force to undergo de-escalation and crisis-intervention training.
The legislation also orders the department to study how and where women are using the VA and how much assistance the agency is providing to homeless female veterans. It also establishes the Interagency Task Force on Outdoor Recreation at the VA, which would collaborate with public land agencies to increase veterans’ access to outdoor spaces.
The House sent the bill to the Senate on Wednesday. In addition, the House approved three separate measures for veterans, all of which still must go to the Senate for consideration.
One bill aims to limit restrictions on the VA for how it spends money during a public health emergency. It aims to provide flexibility to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in caring for homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic, including providing more money for food, transportation and cellphones.
Another bill, the Equal Access to Contraception for Veterans Act, would eliminate copayments for female veterans when they receive their birth control through the VA — extending them the same benefit available to most women through public and private insurers. The measure could save female veterans a total of $400,000 each year, according to VA estimates.