A bill to reduce suicides among veterans stalled in the Senate last month despite its heartrending cause and strong bipartisan support. Now it’s on the verge of final passage thanks to the departure of its main critic.
Veterans were infuriated in December when retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., used parliamentary tactics to single-handedly block a vote on the legislation, citing cost concerns. Projected to cost $22 million over five years, the bill includes language that explicitly prohibits the authorization of any additional funds to carry out its provisions.
Still, supporters of the legislation – among them Republican Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Roy Blunt of Missouri – say extra funds aren’t necessary to consolidate and improve the Department of Veterans Affairs’ suicide prevention programs. They expect the bill to get another shot at final passage in the Senate in the coming days. This time, they say, it will pass easily.
Blunt says it shouldn’t be hard for VA to shift resources around and find the necessary savings within its existing budget to pay for the bill.
“Twenty-two million over five years means $4.4 million over every year,” Blunt said Wednesday in a press call with Missouri reporters. “The department has a lot of money. They proved last year that they were not spending that money wisely.”
Named for a 28-year-old Marine veteran from Houston who committed suicide in 2011, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act would require the secretary of veterans affairs to arrange for annual independent reviews of the agency’s mental health care and suicide prevention programs. It also would launch two three-year pilot programs.
One of the pilot programs would repay the student loans of psychiatrists who commit to at least two years of service with VA, while the other would create partnerships between VA medical centers and nonprofit community groups to establish support networks for veterans.
Another provision of the bill would extend the eligibility of combat veterans who were discharged between 2009 and 2011, enabling them to qualify for VA medical services and nursing home care even if they haven’t proven that their illnesses are linked to their military service.
In a speech on the Senate floor in December, Coburn said he had decided to block a vote on the bill because almost everything in the legislation already had been approved with a $16 billion VA overhaul bill passed by Congress last year.
“Even the Veterans Administration says everything in this bill has already been authorized. So what is it really about? It is about addressing an issue without addressing the issue,” Coburn said.
“So, regrettably, I object to this bill, not because I don’t want to help save suicides but because I don’t think this bill is going to do the first thing to change what is happening,” he said.
Coburn came under withering attack from veterans, who flooded his office with phone calls and plastered his Facebook page with angry messages. But he succeeded in preventing a vote.
The nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America slammed Coburn’s defeat of the bill last year as “tyrannical, selfish, undemocratic and dishonorable.” Hunt had been an active member of the group, which has lobbied hard for his namesake bill on Capitol Hill, as have Hunt’s mother and stepfather.
VA Secretary Robert McDonald has said the agency strongly supports the Clay Hunt Act.
“We believe this bill complements the president’s executive actions and VA’s ongoing, multifaceted efforts to improving mental health care for our nation’s veterans,” he said in a statement.
The department did not immediately respond to questions about how the new programs would be funded.
The Pentagon reported earlier this month that suicides among active-duty troops dropped from a record 319 in 2012 to 259 in 2013, bringing the military’s suicide rate much closer to that of the civilian population.
But a study slated to be published in the February issue of the Annals of Epidemiology reveals that veterans who left the active-duty military between 2001 and 2007 committed suicide at a rate 50 percent higher than their civilian peers.
VA statistics estimate that 22 veterans die from suicide every day.
“The bottom line is that the problem has not abated,” said Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “The status quo is not working and more needs to be done.”
Nicholson said the language prohibiting any additional funds to pay for the bill was added late last year to allay concerns by some conservative members of the House of Representatives who wanted to make sure that the bill was in line with their fiscal policies.
“The deal all along as we understood it is that the cost was minimal and the VA was going to have cover that minimal cost through their existing budget,” he said. “VA is easily able to prioritize issues and pay for small costs that are extra.”
Moran, who serves on the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said he is always open to a request from VA for more resources, but the department’s problem has been that it is not doing its job with the resources it has.
Moran also contested Coburn’s argument that the suicide prevention bill was mere “window dressing.” He cited the pilot program that would create peer support networks in cooperation with community groups as a concrete example of how the legislation will improve access to mental health care in rural states like Kansas, where many veterans live far from a VA hospital.
“It’s more than just sending a message to the VA,” Moran said, “but I’m happy to send another message to the VA that what they’re doing is insufficient in caring for our veterans.”