With the backing of veterans' groups, First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz is pushing once again to pass his bill overhauling veteran suicide prevention programs.
Walz reintroduced the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans bill today. He was joined by Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. The measure easily passed the House late last year but stalled in the Senate over one senator's objections. Retiring Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn blocked the bill over its $22 million price tag and concerns it duplicated programs that already exist. It was a move that outraged the bill's supporters — including retired Marine and Television personality Montel Williams — who argue the bill will go a long way in helping veterans get the mental health care they need.
With Coburn no longer in the U.S. Senate, the bill's sponsors are trying once again to get it passed and sent to President Obama's desk. Walz said in a statement it's time for Congress to act on the measure.
“Currently, 22 veterans die by suicide each and every day. These folks aren’t just our former warriors either; they’re our mothers and fathers. They’re our grandfathers and grandmothers. They’re our brothers and sisters. They’re our neighbors and friends," Walz said. "While no piece of legislation will completely end this heartbreaking epidemic, we cannot stand idly by while more of our heroes struggle with the invisible wounds of war."
The bill is named in honor of Clay Hunt, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran who battled post-traumatic stress disorder and took his own life in 2011. The legislation requires an evaluation of all the VA mental health care and suicide prevention programs to find out if they are effective. It also calls on the VA to establish a website where veterans can go to get information about mental health services for veterans. Also tucked in the provision are pilot programs aimed at helping recruiting more VA psychiatrists by forgiving student loans and setting up a peer support program to help transitioning servicemembers get access to mental health care.
In a statement, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America founder and CEO Paul Rieckhoff urged Congress to act swiftly on the bill.
"No veteran should have to cut through bureaucratic red tape to access the mental health care they earned," Rieckhoff said. "As Congress begins a new year, veterans and their families are watching Washington closely to see who has our back.”