- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2015

President Obama signed a bill Thursday aimed at reducing the number of veterans committing suicide, but some lawmakers are already looking ahead to the next military mental health care fight, saying the new law is only a first step.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act will create a pilot loan repayment program to recruit mental health professionals to the VA, require an annual evaluation of mental health programs to see what’s working and create a transition assistance program for veterans leaving the service to connect with peers.

It is named after Clay Hunt, a former Marine who committed suicide in 2011 after struggling to get care at the Veterans Administration.

Mr. Obama acknowledged that the law is “not a complete solution.” In addition to the reforms he signed into law, he called on Americans around the country to do their part by reaching out to veterans in their communities to let them know they’re not alone.

“This is not just a job for government. Every community, every American, can reach out and do more with and for our veterans. This has to be a national mission,” he said.

Supporters of the bill said it won’t solve the problem of veteran suicides, which some advocates say totals 22 a day.

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Rep. Tim Walz, Minnesota Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said that while the bill is a great first step, “we need to talk Clay Hunt 2.0 right now.”

“My fear is the way things are done around here, I’m really cautioning other people against taking a victory lap and saying we’ve done our part. I am always fearful that we’ll lose our focus,” Mr. Walz said.

Mr. Walz said his original bill called for reviewing personality disorder discharges to correct the record of veterans who may have been kicked out unfairly while suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. That language was dropped from the legislation that was signed into law.

Lawmakers say that thousands of service members have been discharged from military because they suffered from PTSD after combat or sexual assault. Some allege that the Defense Department has blamed these discharges on a personality disorder — a pre-existing condition that should have been diagnosed in a physical required to enter the military if it really existed.

“You took them in, you took them to basic training, you own it,” Mr. Walz said. “Once these people started exhibiting problems, you kick them out?”

Vets kicked out under a faulty diagnosis aren’t eligible to collect disability pay and also can’t receive care at the VA. Reviewing these discharges to see which ones were actually a result of behavior related to service-connected PTSD could open up more services to veterans, the congressman said.

Another priority for Mr. Walz is improving coordination between the Defense Department and the Veterans Affairs Department to ensure service members have a seamless transition in mental health services as they leave the military. While starting a strategic partnership between the two departments was in the original Clay Hunt draft, Mr. Walz said it was stripped out because Defense Department officials were not open to having their policies altered in a bill from a congressional veterans committee.

But the congressman gained a seat this year on the House Armed Services Committee as well as the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and said he can use that to promote better cooperation between the two departments.

“I’m going to come back at it from all sides,” he said. “We should be focusing on it before they even get out.”

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