Legislation pushed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to strengthen suicide prevention programs for veterans won Senate approval Tuesday and is expected to become the first veterans’ bill of 2015 to be signed by President Obama.
The measure – dubbed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, for a Texas Marine who killed himself in 2011 – won House approval last month. Its passage was blocked last year by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who has since retired from the Senate.
The bill will require the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs. It also establishes a program to repay loans to psychiatrists who agree to work with veterans, improves VA collaboration with non-profit agencies, and calls for more online and community outreach mental health services for veterans.
In the Senate, Blumenthal, ranking member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, worked with Republican John McCain, R-Ariz., to expedite the bill’s approval. The bill passed Tuesday, 99-0.
Blumenthal said the measure was an important step in helping to stem a national wave of veterans’ suicides, estimated at as many as 22 a day.
“We owe these wounded warriors more effective mental health care, so they can win the war against the inner demons that come home from service,” he said. He said he hoped the measure would lead to “enhanced psychiatric care, counseling, outreach support and accountability” from the VA.
The VA has been struggling to stem an epidemic of suicides among veterans, many who served in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Studies have indicated that more than 35 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in the VA healthcare system have a mental health diagnosis, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression.
This month, a new study led by VA and Army researchers found that the suicide risk for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan is significantly higher – 41 to 61 percent higher — than for the general population.
The American Psychiatric Association and other groups have supported incentives to address a shortage of psychiatrists willing to work with veterans, saying current policy makes it difficult for the VA to compete with employers that offer loan-repayment incentives.
Hunt, for whom the bill is named, earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, then redeployed to Afghanistan in 2008. After returning home, he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and received care at a local VA hospital before taking his own life.
Blumenthal referenced the 2013 suicide of 31-year-old Justin Eldridge, a Marine from Waterford whom he had befriended. Eldridge served a tour of duty in Afghanistan and came home with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
“Tragically, he slipped through the cracks at his local VA facility and eventually took his own life, Blumenthal said. “We have an obligation to keep faith with our veterans, and this legislation . . . constitutes an important step.”