When President Obama signed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act into law this month, he corrected an injustice that left veterans and their families outraged at the end of last year.
The legislation contains numerous reforms to help veterans access mental health services from the Department of Veterans Affairs medical system. It is named after a Texas Marine veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and took his own life in 2011.
The measure should have become law late last year, but it was held up by one senator — Republican Tom Coburn of Oklahoma — who used political gamesmanship to block the bill after it easily cleared the House and was poised to move quickly in the Senate. Coburn had concerns about the law’s $22 million cost and questioned whether it was needed.
The bill’s price tag, however, was for five years and is a small fraction of the amount the nation spends on its military. In addition, families like Clay Hunt’s, as well as respected veterans’ advocacy organizations, were saying loudly and clearly that the bill’s reforms were desperately needed. Coburn should have listened to their expertise.
The bill will help the VA recruit and retain psychiatrists. It also will help connect veterans with resources and require annual evaluations of veterans’ suicide prevention programs to gauge their effectiveness.
Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents southern Minnesota, served the state and its thousands of veterans well through his quick, bipartisan work this year to resurrect the bill and secure its passage.
The Clay Hunt Act is an important improvement, but much more work needs to be done to strengthen the VA medical system. The challenge now is to capitalize on this momentum to ensure that veterans get the top-quality care they have earned.