The Senate unanimously passed veterans legislation on Tuesday intended to reduce the veteran suicide rate, which averages to about 22 veterans per day.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act bill now goes onto the White House for President Obama's signature. The measure is named for a Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who committed suicide in 2011. He was 28.
"We are extremely grateful for the Senate passing this bill and all those who have worked so hard on it," Hunt's mother, Susan Selke, said in a statement released after the vote by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "While we are a little bittersweet, because it is too late for our son Clay, we are thankful knowing that this bill will save many lives."
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said after the vote that "when you have 8,000 veterans a year committing suicide - which is more veterans than have died in all of Iraq and all of Afghanistan since we've been fighting - then you have a serious problem.
"This legislation is an important step toward providing better access to mental health resources for our veterans."
The Hunt bill was fully expected to pass with overwhelming majorities in the House and Senate last year. It passed in the House but failed in the Senate after retiring Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma placed a hold on it preventing the chamber from holding a vote.
Coburn claimed the bill duplicated existing Veterans Affairs Department programs and that its $22 million price tag was not offset by cuts in other programs.
Veterans groups and military associations condemned the lawmaker's action and vowed to see the bill reintroduced as soon as the new Congress convened earlier this month.
Isakson said Monday that the Senate addressed the cost issue by taking internally generated funds. But he also rejected Coburn's contention that the bill duplicated existing programs.
There was no opposition to the bill this time around. The only reason the final tally was not 100-0 is because Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, was delayed by weather from getting back to Washington in time for the vote.
He has been a supporter of the legislation, his office said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, called the vote a "breakthrough bipartisan step [that] will help countless veterans overcome invisible wounds of war that lead to 22 tragic suicides every day."
The $22 million Clay Hunt bill includes a new tool that the Veterans Affairs Department can use to recruit more mental health professionals: repayment of student loans for psychiatry students. VA officials say the pilot program will be a significant incentive for young psychiatrists to fill VA positions.
The law also mandates annual evaluations to determine the efficacy of VA suicide prevention programs, new veteran peer support programs and the creation of a new website to better explain what mental health resources are available to veterans.
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who brought the bill to the Senate floor on Tuesday, said the U.S. has "a moral obligation to identify, resource, and make available to our veterans effective forms of treatment to help eliminate suicide resulting from severe combat-related psychological trauma."
IAVA Chief Executive Officer Paul Rieckhoff said Obama should "demonstrate his commitment to our veteran with a public signing ceremony."
"After being blocked by a lone Senator last session, our veteran members are relieved that we are now a huge step closer to reversing the trend that has taken far too many sons, daughters, friends and loved ones from us," he said.
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