- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The House passed a bill Tuesday to improve mental health care for veterans, but it’s unclear if it’ll pass the Senate and become law before Congress leaves at the end of the week.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act passed the House unanimously by voice vote. The $22 million bill would require annual evaluations of mental health programs at both the VA and the Defense Department as well as authorize the VA to collaborate with veterans service organizations and mental health nonprofits to improve care.

The bill is named after Clay Hunt, a Marine who committed suicide in 2011. Hunt initially received a 30 percent disability rating because of his post-traumatic stress disorder after two deployments in the infantry, but when he couldn’t hold a job because of his severe anxiety and depression, he appealed the decision.

Five weeks after Mr. Clay, 28, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, his family received notice that his appeal had been approved and he’d been rated 100 percent disabled.

“We can’t afford to lose people like Clay Hunt. Clay Hunt is our leader, he’s our future leaders, he’s our business leaders,” said Rep. Timothy J. Walz, Minnesota Democrat and a key sponsor of the bill. “He would, at some point, have been in this chamber.”

Susan Selke, mother of Mr. Hunt, said she knows her son would be happy that those who served with him could be getting better mental help if the bill passes the Senate.

“It’s a little bittersweet. It’s obviously too late for our son Clay, but we are just so grateful for what it will provide for all of our veterans in the future,” Mrs. Selke said. “Clay would like nothing more than to know this work has been carried on.”

Despite overwhelming bipartisan support in the House, it’s unclear if the bill will pass the Senate before lawmakers head home for a holiday break. Alex Nicholson, legislative director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, promised to bring the bill up Wednesday or Thursday and will ask to pass the bill by unanimous consent.

Mr. Nicholson said he is worried that Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, or Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, will object to the $22 million cost of the bill over five years, which is not offset and breaks the caps set in last year’s budget agreement.

Mr. Coburn said he had not yet looked at the bill and, as a result, could not comment on what he would do.

Lawmakers acknowledged that the bill will not end veterans’ suicide or cure all of the VA’s problems. But it does make some changes, including an interactive website active-duty troops and veterans will be able to visit to learn about all available mental health resources in one easy-to-access place.

“The Clay Hunt SAV act will not single-handedly halt the scourge of suicide,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “The problems VA faces and [the] wounds of our veterans are far too deep for any single solution to solve, but it is an important first step and a step that we owe Clay.”

The bill also establishes a pilot program for the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer student loan repayment incentives to recruit and retain psychiatrists, one of the most understaffed specialties at the VA. The doctors must stay at the VA for at least two years to receive the benefit.

The yearly evaluation by an outside party mandated by the bill would look at which programs are working and which aren’t — and to make recommendations about how to improve on those that are not helpful to service members.

“If things are not working, evaluate them and get rid of them,” Mr. Walz said. “Don’t get buried in studies for 10 years. We don’t have 10 years; we don’t have 10 days for people. It’s now.”

The bill would also authorize a pilot program to provide more peer and community support to those transitioning out of the military.

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

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