Clay Hunt Veteran Suicide Bill Blocked in Senate by Coburn

Clay Hunt (Photo: IAVA)

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, has successfully blocked a vote on a veterans' suicide bill, leaving it to backers to re-introduce the legislation next year.

Coburn, who is leaving the Senate, said he opposed the $22 million Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act because it duplicated existing Department of Veterans Affairs programs and was not paid for by offsets elsewhere in the budget.

Coburn's move was immediately blasted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, whose founder and chief executive officer said the delay caused by Coburn will translate into veterans' deaths.

"It's sickening to think another 22 veterans will die by suicide today and every day we fail to expand mental health care for our vets," said Paul Rieckhoff in a statement. VA figures state that, on average, 22 veterans a day commit suicide.

Rieckhoff called it "a shame" that Coburn, who is leaving the Senate after 20 years in Congress, "will always be remembered for this final, misguided attack on veterans nationwide."

In a statement released through IAVA, Hunt's mother, Susan Selke, called it "shocking to see this bill blocked because of one lone senator's agenda."

"I am grieving thinking of those young men and women who will be delayed receiving help because of this inaction," she said. "The VA's mental health care system needs urgent change as more veterans die from suicide than on the battlefield, and Senator Coburn's action today just delays that reform."

Coburn argued before the Senate late Monday that "almost everything that's in this bill has already been authorized and approved with the $10 billion [Veterans Choice Ac t] that we sent to the VA." 

"I object to this bill not because I don't want to help save [veterans], because I don't think this bill's going to do that," he said.

Coburn also criticized Congress, including himself, for failing to better oversee the VA.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who argued for passage of the bill, said it would be refilled when Congress reconvenes next year.

"And we will win, and we will leave no veteran behind," Blumenthal said.

The Clay Hunt Act called for speeding up access to mental health care to veterans, including reservists, boosting 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.

VA Secretary Bob McDonald endorsed the legislation earlier in the day, issuing a statement saying it would compliment other actions initiated by the White House to improve delivery of VA healthcare.

McDonald's endorsement was a departure from the qualified support offered only last month by Dr. Rajiv Jain, assistant VA deputy under secretary for health for patient care. Jain told a House Veterans Affairs Committee panel on health that some provisions in the bill would duplicate existing VA actions or programs.

These include a provision requiring an outside evaluation of the VA's mental health and suicide prevention programs and a pilot program establishing community-oriented peer support networks and community outreach teams in five VA regional health systems.

Organizations including The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, as well as professional military groups such as the Military Officers Association of America, Association of the United States Navy and Air Force Sergeants Association have all endorsed the bill.

The House passed the bill with bipartisan support. The bill picked up 21 co-sponsors -- 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats -- including GOP lawmakers Richard Burr of North Carolina, ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; Roy Blunt of Missouri; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska; Dean Heller of Nevada; Jerry Moran of Kansas; Mike Johanns of Nebraska; Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire; Mark Kirk of Illinois; John Cornyn of Texas; Jeff Flake of Arizona; and Jeff Sessions of Alabama.

Democrat senators backing the legislation included Blumenthal; Joe Manchin of West Virginia; Mark Begich of Alaska; Richard Durbin of Illinois; Joe Donnelly of Indiana; Kirsten Gillibrand of New York; Robert Menendez of New Jersey; Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota; John Reed of Rhode Island and Chuck Schumer of New York.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at

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