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House and Senate weigh different approaches to tackling veteran suicide crisis

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., at a hearing in February 2017, is the chairman of Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. “I will do everything I can to see that this committee remains that place where we put our veterans well above partisanship," he said.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 29, 2020

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel advanced legislation Wednesday that aims to help prevent veteran suicide — making it one of three bills designed to tackle the crisis, each with a different approach and all awaiting congressional action.

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee unanimously approved the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, named for a retired Navy commander who died by suicide in 2018 at age 46. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., described the bill as a compromise between Republicans and Democrats.

“This would send an important message not only to veterans, but the American public, that we can come together during a politically turbulent time to do what’s right,” he said. “In this case, to provide critical support for those who sacrifice so much on our behalf and to connect more of them to the life-saving mental health care they need.”

The bill would, in part, establish a grant program to help local organizations coordinate mental health care for veterans that the Department of Veterans Affairs can’t reach. Grants up to $750,000 per organization could be awarded, and the bill mandates that the VA prioritize organizations on tribal lands or in rural communities and other medically under-served areas.

However, the future of the bill remains unclear, as the Senate’s attention is directed toward President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial. Also clouding the bill’s future are two other bills in the House that aim to help prevent veteran suicide, but with different approaches.

Despite an agreement between members of both parties and chambers that veteran suicide prevention should be prioritized, a disjointed legislative approach to address the issue is creating uncertainty about what Congress will do.

The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs advanced a bill last year that — like the Senate bill — would create a grant program for local organizations to help veterans in crisis. However, the bill failed to gain Republican support. 

Republicans argued the legislation was weighed down with too many stipulations, making it nearly impossible for smaller organizations to obtain grants. Democrats opposed any measure that would give the VA secretary an unfettered ability to hand out federal funds. 

After months of bickering between Republicans, Democrats and the VA, the committee passed the Improve Well-Being for Veterans Act in December along party lines. It has not yet been taken up by the full House.

Separately, House Democrats on Tuesday introduced another bill that addresses veteran suicide prevention by requiring the VA to pay for the mental health care of any veteran, regardless of discharge status or their eligibility for benefits.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, introduced the Veterans’ Acute Crisis Care for Emergent Suicide Symptoms Act. The bill could open the door to care for thousands of veterans and service members who are otherwise ineligible for VA treatment.

“This is not opening the full array of benefits, but I think there's a strong argument to be made that makes sense,” Takano said. "Regardless of discharge status you should be able to be treated for a moment of crisis."

The bill has not yet been discussed by the House panel.

The Senate hearing Wednesday was the first meeting of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee under the leadership of Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who took over after Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., retired at the end of 2019.

Moran opened the hearing by calling for bipartisanship, and he named mental health and suicide prevention as his top priority.

“I will do everything I can to see that this committee remains that place where we put our veterans well above partisanship," he said.

In addition to the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, the committee unanimously approved nine other bills. One piece of legislation would establish a VA Advisory Committee on Tribal and Indian Affairs, which would meet face-to-face with the VA secretary and send recommendations to Congress for bettering Native American veterans’ access to VA health care and benefits.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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