Sen. Tom Coburn said Friday a bill that veterans groups are trying to get passed before Congress leaves town for the year carries too hefty a price tag for authority that the VA could, in most cases, already exercise.
Veterans groups say the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act , which would require a report on successful veteran suicide prevention programs and allow the VA to pay incentives to hire psychiatrists, is desperately needed and must pass this year.
But Mr. Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican serving out his final days in the Senate before his retirement, said the bill wouldn’t accomplish much new.
“In almost every case, VA already has the tools and authorities it needs to address these problems,” he said in a statement listing his objections. “The department needs leadership, not another piece of ineffective legislation. Congress should be holding the VA accountable rather than adding to its list of poorly managed programs.”
The bill, largely driven by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, would require an annual outside review of suicide prevention programs to expand what works best for veterans and do away with ineffective programs. The bill also allows the VA to partner with mental health nonprofits, create a website to consolidate the VA’s mental health resources, and expand peer support networks.
Saul Levin, CEO of the American Psychiatric Association, said, “Hundreds of additional lives will be lost” if lawmakers wait until the next Congress to put these reforms into place.
A plan in the bill to recruit and retain psychiatrists would offer up to $120,000 in student loan repayment for mental health specialists who commit to work at the VA for at least two years to fill vacant positions.
Mr. Coburn, who is a medical doctor, says this portion of the bill is duplicative since the VA already has the authority to offer incentives like this to understaffed specialties.
Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Mr. Coburn’s staff are confusing psychologists, whom the VA already has authority to recruit with incentives, and psychiatrists.
But Elaine Joseph, a spokeswoman for Mr. Coburn, said “our objections do not come from erroneous mistakes.”
Without directly naming Mr. Coburn, Mr. Nicholson tried to appeal to the senator Friday by saying the bill would help in his home state of Oklahoma.
“There is a recruitment incentive that would help fill some of the gaps in psychiatry at the VA. Just to give you an example, in the state of Oklahoma alone, there are six current vacancies in psychiatry that they can not recruit for,” he said.
Despite Mr. Coburn’s objections, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said he will try to force the bill through on Friday afternoon, daring Mr. Coburn to stand up and object.
“To deny this start is unconscionable and unacceptable,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “For one senator to block a vote is contemptible.”
Mr. Coburn plans to block the bill on the floor, a spokeswoman for the senator said. If the bill, which has already passed the House unanimously, does not pass the Senate on Friday, advocates and sponsors will need to reintroduce it in 2015 and try again in both chambers.