Veteran Suicide Prevention Bills Face Failure as Debate Stalls Passage

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Ceremony for the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act.
Introduction ceremony for the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. (Image: U.S. Senator John Tester’s official web site)

Differences between the House and Senate approaches to address veteran suicides have hampered progress of proposed legislation, leaving the possibility that no bills will be passed by the end of the year.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday discussed more than two dozen suicide prevention bills, including measures to improve outreach to female veterans; address suicide among Native Americans; mandate training across the Department of Veterans Affairs on asking about access to guns and other lethal means; and improve acute crisis care for suicidal veterans.

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The debate comes on the heels of last month’s Senate passage of the Cmdr. John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act, a bipartisan bill that would require the VA to hire additional suicide prevention coordinators and give grants to organizations that focus on veterans' mental health.

But House Democrats say the legislation is too narrow in scope and leaves out important changes that could have a lasting impact in slowing the pace of veterans suicide. Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said he is in negotiations with the Senate to ensure that some of the House measures are passed to "bring about real change."

"Recent Senate action to advance suicide prevention offers a promising start, but it is the 'People's House' that must complete the work necessary to tackle the crisis of veteran suicide," Takano said. "We need sweeping legislative action backed up by researchers, veteran stakeholders, mental health experts, clinical psychologists, and medical professionals."

Last week before the House hearing, Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said he and Takano had reached a deal to bring the Hannon Act to a vote in the House without any amendments.

But Takano said Thursday his plan was not to present House bills as amendments to the Hannon Act, or S. 785, but instead to negotiate for the passage of House legislation as "reciprocity."

"The negotiations, I think, are getting very close," he said.

A bipartisan group of senators last week wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., urging them to bring the Hannon bill to the House floor.

Noting that the entire Senate Veterans Affairs Committee voted for the bill, and it was approved by the Senate, the signatories, including Moran and the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the bill "puts in place critical care, services and supports that will save veterans' lives."

The Hannon bill is supported by nearly 40 veterans service organizations, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paralyzed Veterans of America and American Veterans.

"[S.] 785 is the bill that's passed [the Senate]. ... We just don't want to have the time run out in this Congress before something gets passed," retired Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Lorraine, president of America's Warrior Partnership, told the House veterans panel last week.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has thrown his support behind the Hannon bill, saying the grant assistance to charities and localities will put funds in the hands of organizations already proven to help veterans.

"I can only do so much with the money I have because there are always fences around funds," Wilkie told Military.com on Friday. "The Senate came together in a bipartisan way, supporting S. 785. ... Here is a bipartisan bill that's sitting in a House committee. Pass it because it's needed."

Takano expressed irritation that neither Wilkie nor a representative from the VA was present at the hearing on approaches to veteran suicides.

"Secretary Wilkie and I both agree addressing veteran suicide is our top priority and yet only one of us is here today," he said.

As of the day of the hearing, 25 legislative days remained on the House calendar in 2020, but only 12 before the election. Congress often conducts only essential business in the lame duck session, and all legislation would have to be reintroduced in the new Congress if the bills don't pass this year.

Veterans who need assistance with a mental health emergency can call the Veterans Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, or they can text 838255 or go to VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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