Saying dozens of veterans commit suicide each day, senators on Tuesday passed a bill to improve mental health care at the VA, sending the measure to the president for his signature.
The bill, named the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act after former Marine sniper who committed suicide after struggling to get care at the VA, has been a priority for veterans organizations and enjoyed universal support, passing 99-0.
“This bill is a first step — a significant first step — but only a first step for meeting the mental health needs that will enable [veterans] to overcome those inner demons that all too often overcome them,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat and a sponsor of the bill.
The bill unanimously passed the House earlier this year, so Senate approval means it heads straight to Mr. Obama.
The measure will require annual, third-party reviews of mental health services offered by the VA, provide loan repayment benefits to help recruit and retain mental health professionals, and create a pilot program for transitioning troops to navigate the VA system with the help of other veterans.
The bill will also extend combat-eligibility for one year to give veterans more time to access VA mental healthcare and require the VA to create a consolidated website so vets can access all information on mental healthcare in one place.
Supporters had hoped to clear the bill late last year, but then-Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, blocked a vote, saying the $24 million proposal mostly duplicated existing programs and was a chance for Congress to pass feel-good legislation, not to solve the issue.
Mr. Coburn retired at the end of last year, and his former colleagues moved quickly in his absence to bring the bill back for a vote.
Hunt’s mother, Susan Selke, has been lobbying on Capitol Hill to get the bill passed, and says her son’s former unit has now lost as many Marines to suicide after returning from the war as it did in combat in Iraq.
“Richard and I are so thankful for the amount of support we have received since we began our journey advocating on behalf of veterans like Clay,” Mrs. Selke said. “Unfortunately, there are many Clays out there who are struggling to get access to the mental health care they so desperately need.”