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Lawmakers propose bill to improve VA suicide prevention care

Jul. 10, 2014 - 04:11PM   |  
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House lawmakers on Thursday introduced legislation they say would improve suicide prevention at the Veterans Affairs Department and bring together former service members needing help.

Named for a former Marine who died by suicide in 2011 despite actively engaging in treatment, therapy and outreach, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act would require VA to submit to yearly evaluations of its suicide and mental health programs, team with the National Guard to improve care for members and establish a peer support outreach program for veterans.

It also would require the Defense Department to establish a review process for troops who received unfavorable discharges possibly because of behavioral problems related to traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder.

The legislation is similar to a Senate bill introduced in March by John Walsh, D-Mont., whose bill also would ensure mental health care professionals in VA and DoD receive special training to identify at-risk veterans. It also would increase the number of mental health professionals in VA by repaying school loans of psychiatrists who agree to work for the department.

Hunt’s mother, Susan Selke, in Washington to testify on veterans suicide before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the legislation would have helped her son, who struggled with the mounds of paperwork and the bureaucratic processes at VA while waiting months for care.

“All veterans, but especially those struggling with invisible injuries, should not have to go through red tape to get the mental health care they need and very much deserve. They should not have to jump through hoops to get an appointment,” Selke said.

The House bill, sponsored by Reps. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.; Tim Walz, D-Minn.; and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., would “change thousands of lives for the better,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“Our friends are dying and they are dying right now. In the past few months, we’ve heard a lot of rhetoric. ... It’s time for action,” Rieckhoff said.

Miller expressed optimism that his House colleagues would approve the legislation and added that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, was aware of the bill in addition to the Senate companion legislation.

“Unfortunately, suicides are happening at a frightening pace. The system has to change and if they won’t change it, the Congress will,” Miller said.

The Congressional Budget Office is reviewing the proposed legislation to determine its cost.

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