The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a veteran suicide prevention bill Tuesday co-sponsored by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain.
The bill, S.167, attempts to curb suicide rates among military veterans, which federal officials estimate results in 22 deaths daily. The legislation requires an independent and outside review of the Department of Veteran Affairs suicide prevention services, enhances outreach to veterans, and tries to attract more psychiatrists into VA clinics and hospitals with tuition breaks.
“Our veterans all too often succumb to the invisible wounds and inner demons that come home with them and they lack the mental health care that they need and deserve because the VA lacks the resources to provide that,” Blumenthal said in a floor speech just before the chamber voted 99-0 to approve the bill.
Blumenthal, who is the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Committee on Veteran Affairs, said he and committee chairman U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, met with VA officials for three hours Tuesday. He said department officials were committed to using the bill to enhance the mental health care it offers to veterans.
The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in a unanimous vote last month. The House also approved the bill last year, but it was blocked in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, who believed it was redundant. Coburn has since retired.
The legislation is named after Clay Hunt, a Marine veteran who received a Purple Heart for his heroic service in Iraq’s Anbar Province, where he was shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his head. Hunt suffered from post-traumatic stress upon his return and committed suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28.
On the Senate floor, Blumenthal referenced another veteran, U.S. Marine Justin Eldridge, of Waterford, who committed suicide in 2013.
“Far too many of our veterans have succumbed to suicide including a friend of mine, Justin Eldridge, whose widow, Joanna, was my guest at the State of the Union. She has struggled in the wake of his death with their children to survive this tragedy,” he said.
Blumenthal said he hoped Congress would continue to work on a bipartisan basis to support veterans and improve the VA’s health care system.
McCain agreed in a press release following the bill’s passage. He cited a study published this month in the Annals of Epidemiology, which found that suicide is 50 percent higher among vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan than among the general public.
“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.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention called the bill a win in the country’s battle to reduce suicides.
“With veterans accounting for one out of every five suicides in our country, passage of the Clay Hunt Act is a major victory not just for veterans but for the larger fight against suicide. AFSP has set the bold goal of reducing the annual suicide rate by 20 percent by 2025, and it’s legislation like the Clay Hunt Act that will make it happen,” John Madigan, the group’s vice president for public policy, said in a press release.