WASHINGTON – Today, the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed unanimously a bill that would improve mental health care and suicide prevention resources for American service members.
The unanimous, bipartisan vote came during the committee’s first official meeting in the 114th Congress and also the first meeting with Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., serving as chairman.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which passed the House of Representatives on Jan. 12, 2105, will now proceed to the full Senate floor for consideration.
Isakson said he hopes the full Senate will act quickly to pass the bill and send it to the president for signature into law.
“When you have 8,000 veterans a year committing suicide – which is more veterans than have died in all of Iraq and all of Afghanistan since we’ve been fighting – then you have a serious problem and this is emergency legislation that we need to pass to help our veterans,” said Isakson.
Isakson has long been focused on improving the quality and timeliness of care at Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare facilities across the country, and he helped to uncover signs of neglect and mismanagement at the Atlanta VA Medical Center after holding a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee field hearing there in August 2013.
“As I’ve said many times in Atlanta at the VA hospital, we don’t just have Republican veterans and Democrat veterans, we have American veterans,” said Isakson. “This committee is about serving the veterans of the United States of America regardless of their race, creed, color, national origin or their political affiliation. This is going to be the most bipartisan committee in the United States Senate because … those that sacrifice themselves for our country need to be rewarded with the best possible health care available and the best services from the Department of Veterans Affairs.”
Isakson also announced that he intends for the Senate VA Committee to make at least two site visits to VA facilities around the country where there have been serious problems with wait times for veterans seeking health care or serious problems with construction costs overruns. Isakson also plans to have the Committee meet over at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington with the VA Secretary and other department employees, and that the first such meeting will be in early February.
“I’ve always felt like if I’m out of sight, out of mind, nobody cares what I think,” said Isakson. “But if they know I care enough to go to them and ask questions and have the committee there, we are going to be a better committee for it and the veterans choice bill is going to get implemented because they know we’re watching.”
The Clay Hunt bill would require a third-party evaluation of existing suicide prevention programs at the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to gauge their effectiveness and make recommendations for consolidation, elimination or improvement.
The bill provides for better access to information on mental health by improving the exchange of training, best practices, and other resources among the VA and non-profit mental health organizations to enhance collaboration of suicide prevention efforts, as well as including a new website that offers veterans information on mental health care services. It creates a pilot loan repayment program for VA psychiatrists. The Clay Hunt Act also creates a community outreach pilot program to help veterans transition from active duty service and extends the ability for certain combat veterans to enroll in the Veterans Health Administration for one year.
The legislation is named for Clay Hunt, a Marine veteran who committed suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28. Clay enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 2005 and deployed to Anbar Province, near Fallujah, in January 2007. He was shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his head, earning him a Purple Heart. Clay recuperated at Twenty Nine Palms, Calif., and then graduated from Marine Corps Scout Sniper School in March 2008. He redeployed to southern Afghanistan a few weeks later. His unit returned in late October of 2008 and he was honorably discharged from the Marines in April 2009. After returning home, Clay struggled with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder for many years as he was provided care at his local VA hospital before taking his own life.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee is chaired by U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the 114th Congress.
Isakson is a veteran himself – having served in the Georgia Air National Guard from 1966-1972 – and has been a member of the Senate VA Committee since he joined the Senate in 2005. Isakson’s home state of Georgia is home to more than a dozen military installations representing each branch of the military as well as more than 774,000 veterans.