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Senate passes comprehensive bill to combat veteran suicide

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 6, 2020

WASHINGTON — The Senate approved a major suicide prevention bill Wednesday night that would expand mental health care for transitioning service members and establish a grant program for local organizations that work with veterans.  

The Senate passed the bill, S. 785, by voice vote late Wednesday. The legislation had stalled in the chamber for over a year but was advanced after gaining support from the White House and the Department of Veterans Affairs. It must still pass the House before becoming law. 

“For months now, our committee has been working closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House to improve upon and advance S. 785,” Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said on the Senate floor. “We must take real and urgent action to tackle these challenges together.”  

The bill appropriates $174 million to the VA secretary for 2021 through 2025. It mandates that the department provide health care to all veterans for one year after they transition from active duty — building into law an initiative President Donald Trump expressed support for in 2018.  

The bill also creates a grant program that would allow up to $750,000 to be awarded to state and local organizations that provide suicide prevention services to veterans and their families. In addition, the legislation boosts mental health staff, alternative therapies and suicide prevention research at the VA. Among a list of measures, the legislation would provide hyperbaric oxygen therapy to veterans and initiate a study to see whether there’s a correlation between suicide risk and living at high altitudes.  

Moran and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, worked on the legislation together. The bill, titled the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, is named for a Montana veteran who died by suicide in 2018 at age 46.  

Retired Navy commander John Scott Hannon was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, severe depression and bipolar disorder. During a news conference last year, his sister, Kim Parrott, said mental health treatment “was too fragmented and too late” to save her brother’s life.  

“People have been looking for solutions and looking for solutions, and the fact is there is no silver bullet,” Tester said on the Senate floor. “But what we’ve done today is give the VA more tools in their toolbox to be able to address this problem.”  

It was uncertain Thursday when the House may consider the legislation. Congress was set to enter a recess for the remainder of August.  

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie expressed his support for the legislation late Wednesday on Twitter.

“Happy to see Senate pass S. 785, important legislation to prevent veteran suicide,” Wilkie tweeted. “I look forward to the House passing it and sending it to POTUS’s desk as soon as possible.”

wentling.nikki@stripes.com 
Twitter: @nikkiwentling