Congress moves forward with deal to pass major veteran suicide prevention bills

Abbie Bennett
September 17, 2020 - 4:32 pm
Veterans Crisis Line

Department of Veterans Affairs

House lawmakers took a major step on Thursday to advance a package of bills aimed at preventing veteran suicide, part of a deal with senators to pass legislation from both chambers.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted to move five bills to the House floor Thursday, including the Veterans Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care and Treatment (COMPACT) Act. That bill contains several measures aimed at improving veteran mental health care, including:

  • A bill from Chairman Mark Takano, D-California, to provide emergency mental health care for all veterans in crisis;
  • Efforts to better inform and train veterans' family members to create better support networks;
  • A requirement for VA to reach out to veterans who haven't been to the department for care in two or more years so they know what benefits and help is available;
  • More de-escalation and crisis intervention training for VA police;
  • A requirement for VA to analyze its programs intended to help women veterans who are homeless or at risk of homelessness, to find ways to improve those programs;
  • A requirement for VA to complete an annual report on locations where women vets are using VA health care.

That package of legislation is intended to complement and "fill gaps" in the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Healthcare Improvement Act , an omnibus bill that passed the Senate in August. That bill aims to improve veteran mental health care by providing grants to community organizations working to help veterans in crisis, ordering VA to study complementary and alternative care such as yoga and animal therapy, studying the expansion of care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges and hiring more suicide prevention coordinators for each VA hospital. 

After the Hannon bill passed the Senate, lawmakers, veteran advocates and even VA Secretary Robert Wilkie increasingly pressured the House to quickly pass the legislation, or risk endangering more lives. But in the House, Takano and other lawmakers argued the bill was incomplete without several of their measures and pushed for passage of their own package. 

Over the last two weeks, Takano and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, have worked on a deal to get the Hannon bill and House suicide prevention priorities passed before October. During Thursday's House hearing, Takano said the aim is to send both legislation packages to the House floor for votes next week. If they pass the House, the Hannon bill heads directly to the president's desk for final approval to become law. The COMPACT Act would still have to get approval in the Senate before it too can move on to the White House.

Takano said Thursday he believed the Hannon bill will pass the House, and that his committee's COMPACT Act will pass the House "unanimously." He pledged to continue working with Moran and the Senate committee to pass veterans' legislation out of both chambers. 

Ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, who plans to retire at the end of this session of Congress, said he was proud the committee had, at last, reached an agreement to advance major veteran suicide prevention legislation.

"That has been our stated priority this Congress and I am grateful that we will finally pass comprehensive legislation ... after almost two full years of promises," he said.

VA data shows about 20 veterans and service members die by suicide daily. That number has remained largely stagnate or worsened in recent years despite increased spending and programs aimed at helping. The data typically lags behind by two years, though, making it difficult to determine whether efforts have been effective. 

The House legislation package headed to the floor leaves out some previous proposals, including bills intended to improve mental health care for Native veterans and increase firearms safety. 

Native Americans and Native Alaskans serve in the United States military at higher rates than any other groups but remain one of the most disadvantaged subsets of veterans, with one of the highest suicide rates. Takano said last week that the rate of suicide among Native veterans is "astronomically high."

The American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans Mental Health Act would require VA to document "culturally competent" outreach and mental health care provided to Native veterans. 

Firearms are a leading cause of suicide among veterans and are involved in nearly 70% of veteran suicide deaths, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Advocates have said for years that efforts to curb veteran suicide should include measures to increase firearms safety, but opponents have argued repeatedly that such measures could violate veterans' constitutional rights. 

The Lethal Means Safety Training Act would expand VA's lethal means safety training for each of its employees and contractors who work with veterans. Increasing firearms safety was also among top priorities for the recently revealed White House suicide prevention plan. 

Other measures to require VA to install a suicide prevention coordinator at each of its locations, launch a survey for veterans on whether VA should provide appointments outside standard business hours and more also did not make it into the final package, but that doesn't mean the bills are dead. They remain as standalone legislation and could still pass if they receive a House floor vote and then approval from the Senate in turn. 

"I can promise that this isn't going to be the last conversation or the only legislation we consider regarding veteran suicide prevention," Takano said to open Thursday's hearing. "We will pick up where we left off on lethal means training and the Zero Suicide demonstration. We can do more to ensure women veterans and veterans of color have an easier pathway to VA benefits and health care ... We can and will continue to focus on reducing veteran suicide." 

But time is running out for Congress to pass any significant legislation this year. A limited number of legislative days remain on the calendars for each chamber as a major election looms and this session of Congress comes to a close with major legislation left undone, including finalizing the National Defense Authorization Act and any additional pandemic relief efforts. If any of the bills don't pass by the end of 2020, lawmakers will have to reintroduce them in the next session of Congress and start the process again.

For more information on potential warning signs of suicide, click here.

If you or someone you know needs help, contact the Veteran Crisis Line 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 (select option 1 for a VA staff member). Veterans, service members or their families also can text 838255 or go to veteranscrisisline.net.

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Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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