- The Washington Times - Monday, December 15, 2014

Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, stalled a bill aimed at stemming veterans suicides Monday night, saying that it carries too hefty a price tag for authority that the Veterans Affairs Department 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, who is serving out his final days in the Senate before his retirement, said the bill wouldn’t accomplish much new.

“I’m going to be objecting to this bill because it throws money and doesn’t solve the real problem,” Mr. Coburn said on the Senate floor.

“I object, not because I don’t want to save suicides, but because I don’t think this bill will do the first thing to change what’s happening,” he continued.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, tried to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but Mr. Coburn objected.

“To deny this start is unconscionable and unacceptable,” Mr. Blumenthal told reporters last week. “For one senator to block a vote is contemptible.”

Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the that despite his reputation as a budget hawk, Mr. Coburn should have recognized that the $22 million cost of the bill is worth the lives it would have saved.

“It’s a shame that after two decades of service in Washington, Sen. Coburn will always be remembered for this final, misguided attack on veterans nationwide,” he said. “If it takes 90 days for the new Congress to re-pass this bill, the statistics tell us another 1,980 vets will have died by suicide. That should be a heavy burden on the conscience of Sen. Coburn and this Congress.”

The bill would have required an annual outside review of suicide prevention programs to expand what works best for veterans and do away with ineffective programs. The bill also would have allowed the VA to partner with mental health nonprofits, create a website to consolidate the VA’s mental health resources, and expand peer support networks.

A plan in the bill to recruit and retain psychiatrists would have offered 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 highlighted his past as a medical doctor, getting choked up on the Senate floor as he spoke about patients he has tried to help who have ended up taking their own lives.

He stressed that holding oversight hearings and holding the VA accountable will do more good than just passing another bill.

Alex Nicholson, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Mr. Coburn seemed “misinformed” about the bill, especially when he said the VA thinks it doesn’t need the authorities included in the bill.

“It’s one thing to argue and rebut an argument that’s based on facts, it’s hard to rebut untruths,” Mr. Nicholson said.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald put out a statement Monday afternoon urging Congress to pass the bill and saying that the bill complements other actions taken by the agency.

It’s unlikely advocates will find a way to revive the bill in the Senate’s remaining few days in session this year, meaning sponsors will need to reintroduce in 2015 and try again in both chambers. The bill had already unanimously passed the House earlier this month.

Rep. Tim Walz, Minnesota Democrat and the highest-ranking enlisted man ever to serve in Congress, said he will introduce the bill again in the House as soon as members return from a holiday break.

“Make no mistake, the fight isn’t over. We will rally from this setback,” he said in a statement. “Unfortunately, we know for a number of veterans that wait will be too large a burden to bear. Each day we fail to address this problem, more veterans die.”

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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