Veterans groups and military associations are blasting a move by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, intended to scuttle a veterans' suicide prevention bill that has already passed in the House with strong bipartisan support.
The GOP lawmaker put a hold on the $22 million bill, which he opposes on grounds it has no offsets in spending elsewhere and would duplicate programs already offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said.
"The hold is Coburn's, and Coburn is doing what Coburn does ... Making one of his ‘Dr. No' stands on technicalities and principal," said Ian de Planque, legislative director for The American Legion. The "Dr. No" moniker comes from the fact that Coburn is a medical doctor as well as fiscal conservative willing to vote down spending proposals that don't come with offsets in other programs.
With the Senate set to end the session in the next 24 hours, it is possible the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act will fail to even get a vote, meaning supporters will have to reintroduce it next year.
Coburn's hold may also be one of his final acts as a U.S. senator, since he is retiring at the end of the session reportedly to deal with his own health – a recurrence of prostate cancer.
The Clay Hunt Act would speed up access to mental health care to veterans, including reservists, boost VA efforts to hire more psychiatrists, and review all current VA mental health programs for effectiveness.
Hunt was a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He came home wounded and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He became active in helping other veterans, including as a member of Team Rubicon, a non-profit group organization that puts skilled veterans together with first responders to aid in national or international catastrophes and emergencies.
Hunt was 28 when he committed suicide in March of 2011.
Since then he has been a symbol of veteran suicide, which VA officials say occurs an average of 22 times per day. The Clay Hunt Act has been supported by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Military Officers Association of America, among other groups.
In an online statement, IAVA quotes Richard Selke, Hunt's stepfather, in calling on Coburn to lift his hold on the bill.
"[Clay's mother] Susan and I are conservative Republicans from the state of Texas," Selke said. "I appreciate your vigilance over our budget. The bill we are talking about is projected to cost about $22 million dollars. That's a lot of money to me. It's a lot of money to you. But in the context of the value of a human life, it is insignificant."
Coburn, in a two-page statement released by his office on Friday, said the VA "already has the tools and authorities it needs to address these problems."
"Congress should be holding the VA accountable rather than adding to its list of poorly managed programs. The VA has proven that questions need to be asked before it is entrusted with the lives of veterans or the money of taxpayers," Coburn said.
Besides not providing for offsets, Coburn said a $3 million provision for paying off the college loans of psychiatrists coming to work at VA is something the department already has the authority and funding to do.
The Legion's de Planque believes Coburn misunderstands the measure.
The new money is intended to bring in professionals to serve for a specific number of years in return for loan repayments. It would function much like the Reserve Officer Training Corps, where the Defense Department covers tuition costs in return for a military service commitment, he said.
"This is actually a way of creating people to fill those slots [now vacant]," he said.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told a press conference on Friday that legislation opposed by Coburn "does not go as far as I would have liked."
"In my view the goal is to make sure that every veteran in this country who is having problems is able to get access to the medical help they need and get that mental health care immediately without bureaucratic or financial impediments," he said. "It speaks to the dysfunction in the United States Senate that when you have virtually every member of the Senate saying loudly and clearly ‘we want to go forward' on this Clay Hunt legislation, that we can have one or two senators say ‘no' and stop it. [That] is very, very troubling."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org