- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Saying dozens of veterans commit suicide each day, senators on Tuesday passed a bill to improve mental health care at the VA, sending the measure on to the president for his promised signature.

The bill, named the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act after a former Marine sniper who committed suicide after struggling to get care at the VA, has been a priority for veterans organizations and enjoyed universal support, passing 99-0.

“This bill is a first step — a significant first step — but only a first step for meeting the mental health needs that will enable [veterans] to overcome those inner demons that all too often overcome them,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat and a sponsor of the bill.

The bill unanimously passed the House earlier this year, so Senate approval means it heads straight to Mr. Obama.

The measure will require annual third-party reviews of mental health services offered by the VA, provide loan repayment benefits to help recruit and retain mental health professionals and create a pilot program in which other veterans will help transitioning troops navigate the VA system.

The bill will also extend combat eligibility for one year to give veterans more time to access VA mental health care and require the VA to create a consolidated website so vets can access all information on mental health care in one place.

Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called on the president to sign the bill into law in a public ceremony to demonstrate his commitment to veterans.

“For too long the crisis of veteran suicide has been hidden in the shadows. This bill gives many veterans the new hope they so desperately need and demonstrates that our leaders are willing to give veterans the care they deserve,” Mr. Rieckhoff said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Mr. Obama strongly supports the legislation and will sign it into law.

John Stroud, national commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, emphasized that there is more to be done to improve mental health care for veterans, including a review of other-than-honorable discharges for those that may have been related to undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rep. Timothy J. Walz, a Minnesota Democrat who introduced the bill in the House, also said he would continue to work on more broad legislation to improve mental health care for veterans.

“We may never completely end this terrible epidemic that is plaguing our country, but if we can save one parent from having to bury their child, one son from losing his mother or one sister from losing her brother, it’s worth trying with all our might,” he said.

Supporters had hoped to clear the bill late last year, but then-Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, blocked a vote, saying the $24 million proposal mostly duplicated existing programs and was a chance for Congress to pass feel-good legislation, not to solve the issue.

Mr. Coburn retired at the end of last year, and his former colleagues moved quickly in his absence to bring the bill back for a vote.

Hunt’s mother, Susan Selke, has been lobbying on Capitol Hill to get the bill passed and says her son’s former unit has now lost as many Marines to suicide after returning from the war as it did in combat in Iraq.

Richard and I are so thankful for the amount of support we have received since we began our journey advocating on behalf of veterans like Clay,” Mrs. Selke said. “Unfortunately, there are many Clays out there who are struggling to get access to the mental health care they so desperately need.”

⦁ Dave Boyer contributed to this report.



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