Senate lawmakers advanced a serious veterans suicide prevention initiative on Wednesday, creating a possible legislative path for the action on the difficulty by the top of the year.
But the measure also could become yet one more election-year partisan fight if party leaders can’t find quick compromises on lingering policy differences.
The bill, the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans psychological state Care Improvement Act, has been stalled within the chamber since last year but was approved without objection as lawmakers steel oneself against their upcoming August recess.
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., called the measure a much-needed new approach to federal suicide prevention efforts for veterans.
“This bill will make necessary investments in suicide prevention,” he said on the Senate floor just before passage. “It will improve and support innovative research. it’ll make improvements and increase the supply of psychological state care. VA is going to be required to raise collaborate with community organizations across the country serving veterans.”
The measure — named for Hannon, a Navy SEAL who died by suicide in early 2018 — has been highlighted for months by some veterans advocacy groups as a possible breakthrough measure efforts to curb veterans’ suicide.
According to the newest department statistics, about 20 veterans and repair members die by suicide every day. More veterans died by suicide from 2005 and 2017 (nearly 79,000) than the entire number of U.S. troops who died in 30 years of war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (about 65,000).
The Hannon bill would broaden the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention efforts through a series of investments in outreach programs and scholarships for psychological state professionals.
VA officials would be granted direct hiring authority to more quickly fill staffing gaps in psychological state services, and a replacement grant program would encourage collaboration with community organizations in providing quick aid to veterans in distress, especially in rural areas.
“The biggest challenge facing VA today is that we’re losing 20 veterans each day to suicide,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont. “People are trying to find solutions and searching for solutions and therefore the fact is there’s no solution. But what we’ve done today is give VA more tools in their toolbox to be ready to address this problem.”
Many provisions within the bill echo proposals under discussion within the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in recent weeks, as that panel has made its own summer legislative press on suicide prevention.
Late Wednesday, committee ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., involved immediate action on the Senate plan.
“It includes numerous provisions that might help fulfill our calling to support and protect veterans in danger,” he said during a statement. “While we cannot bring the thousands of (veterans lost to suicide) back, we will solemnly honor them and every one of our nation’s veterans by delivering this bill to President Trump’s desk with none further delay.”
But the quick passage of the Hannon bill with none House alterations is unlikely. The Democratic-lead House committee has checked out different requirements for community psychological state grants, body cameras for VA police to raised track first-responders suicide awareness training, and a broader discussion of safe storage for veterans firearms — all items that aren’t within the Senate version.
Still, the momentum of a serious Senate veterans bill combined with the House committee’s work could provide some momentum on the difficulty in the coming months, and possibly compromise legislation by the top of the year.
If so, 2020 could convince be a key milestone within the suicide prevention effort.
Earlier this summer, the White House unveiled its own initiative — the President’s Roadmap to Empower Veterans and End a National Tragedy of Suicide (PREVENTS) — designed to compile federal agencies towards a standard goal of finding solutions to the matter.
That work includes a replacement public awareness campaign about the signs of suicide and available psychological state resources, also as a promised discussion on lethal means safety.
Veterans Affairs officials have noted that only about one-third of veterans who die by suicide have regular contact with department services or health care specialists. In recent years, as lawmakers and administration officials have worked to deal with the matter, the share of veterans in VA care who have died by suicide has decreased.
Advocates say that points to an increasing need for outreach to veterans unacquainted their military benefits, or still worried about the stigma of seeking help for psychological state challenges.
Both the House and therefore the Senate is expected to start out their summer break in the coming days. When lawmakers return to Capitol Hill in September (for a brief legislative session before an extended, pre-election recess), House Veterans’ Affairs Committee leaders hope for action on their pending bills.
Veterans experiencing a psychological state emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and choose option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their relations also can text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance