A bill to improve veterans' access to mental health care and reduce veteran suicide rates will get a committee vote next year if, as expected, Sen. Jerry Moran becomes chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, Moran and co-sponsor Sen. Jon Tester said Wednesday.
Committee Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia is retiring at the end of this year, and Moran, of Kansas, is the Republican next in seniority. Speaking at a Washington Post panel discussion, Moran said veterans' mental health care and suicide prevention will be a priority of the committee when he becomes chairman and he will work "to see that legislation occurs."
Tester, D-Montana, said the bill will be put to a committee vote in early 2020.
The measure was introduced in March to improve health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs to veterans across the country.
The bill also would allow veterans to be treated with innovative suicide prevention initiatives like animal therapy, yoga, meditation and acupuncture. Tester said in parts of Montana, private groups are already taking veterans out on fly-fishing trips, which have helped many of them manage mental health issues.
Moran said the bill would be an answer to the lack of mental health care professionals available, especially for veterans.
"There is a tremendous challenge in states like Sen. Tester's and mine, rural America, in which these professionals, if they do exist, they don't exist close to where a veteran lives," he said.
Brett Copeland, executive director at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute, called the proposal "a very positive direction for veterans' mental health care."
In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, over 6,100 veterans died by suicide, according to the 2019 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, accounting for 14% of all deaths by suicide among U.S. adults. The suicide rate is higher in veterans than in active service members currently deployed; in 2017 there were 285 deaths by suicide among active duty troops.
In May, Teresa Boyd, assistant deputy undersecretary for Health for Clinical Operations at the VA, told the committee that the agency was analyzing the measure and would provide feedback in a follow-up letter.
That letter was sent May 22, VA spokesperson Ndidi Mojay said.
"VA has a number of concerns and cautions regarding provisions in in the bill, mostly its wide range of authorities and overly prescriptive language and its focus almost exclusively on suicide prevention as a mental health concern," Mojay said in an email. "Any legislation on suicide prevention coming from Congress should focus more sharply on ways and means to work with local partners and identify and reach the sixty percent of veterans who die by suicide every day and who are unknown to VA."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a statement from the VA.