Senate backs bill to address veterans’ suicide

Author: Associated Press
Published: Updated:

WASHINGTON (AP) – A bill aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic among military veterans won unanimous approval from the Senate Tuesday, sending the measure to the president for his expected signature.

The bill is named for Clay Hunt, a 26-year-old veteran who killed himself in 2011 and comes in response to suicides that on average claim the lives of 22 military veterans every day.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama strongly supports the bill and will sign it.

The House passed the bill unanimously last month.

The measure would require the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs and offers financial incentives to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who agree to work for the VA. It also would help military members as they transition from active duty to veteran status.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he was proud the Senate voted “to enhance the care we provide our men and women in uniform who continue to battle the lasting wounds of war.”

“Our nation has much work still to do to fulfill its responsibilities for our veterans, and this bill is an important step in improving life-saving mental health care services for the men and women who have served and sacrificed,” McCain said.

John Stroud, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, said the bill strengthens and expands the mental health programs and services available to service members and veterans.

Even so, the VFW is concerned that some service members are being kicked out of the military for pre-existing mental health problems without first being properly diagnosed or treated, “meaning they could easily be denied critical VA care and benefits after they are discharged,” Stroud said.

Stroud and other veterans groups urged Congress to continue to work on the issue.

Despite unanimous support in the House and Senate, the measure has faced resistance from some lawmakers. Supporters of the bill were frustrated late last year when the measure was blocked by then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

Coburn, who retired in January, said the bill duplicated existing programs. He also objected to the $22 million price tag. The latest version of the bill orders the Veterans Affairs Department to find money for suicide-prevention programs within its $154 billion budget.

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