House lawmakers on Wednesday reintroduced the Clay Hunt anti-suicide legislation that failed to be passed last month when recently retired Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, blocked the chamber from voting on the measure over its $22 million price tag.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act is named after Marine veteran Clay Hunt, who advocated for veterans even as he fought his own mental health issues before taking his own life in 2011.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called veteran suicides a "horrific problem" that will only be resolved through new ideas to improve accessibility and effectiveness of mental health care.
"The Clay Hunt SAV Act will ensure VA's mental health and suicide prevention efforts receive crucial independent, third party oversight while creating a greater accounting of available services and fostering an enhanced community approach to delivering veterans suicide prevention and mental health care treatment," he said in a joint statement released Wednesday with Democrat co sponsors Reps. Tom Walz of Minnesota and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.
Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, joined the lawmakers in the joint statement and urged the House to act on the bill quickly.
"Twenty-two veterans die by suicide each day and our country can provide the tools to help reverse that number," he said. "No veteran should have to cut through bureaucratic red tape to access the mental health care they earned. As Congress begins a new year, veterans and their families are watching Washington closely to see who has our back."
The House easily passed the Clay Hunt act last year it seemed certain it would have just as easily passed in the Senate but for Coburn's opposition. Under Senate rules, he was able to place a hold on the bill, preventing it from coming up for a vote.
In blocking the bill last month Coburn claimed it duplicated existing Veterans Affairs Department programs and also because its costs were not made up for by offsets elsewhere in the budget.
"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 told the Senate.
But Coburn's move – his last before retiring – was criticized by veterans' advocates as a selfish showcasing of his conservative credentials at the expense of veterans at risk of suicide.
In addition to IAVA, The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, 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, all backed the bill.
Hunt's mother, Susan Selke, said in a statement afterwards that it was "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."