Congress passes sweeping veteran mental healthcare bill aimed at suicide prevention

Abbie Bennett
September 23, 2020 - 1:25 pm
VeteranSuicideCrisisLine

Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

This story originally published Aug. 5, 2020 at 7:41 p.m. EST. It was updated on Sept. 23, 2020 at 1:25 p.m. to reflect that the bill has now passed out of Congress unanimously, and lawmakers' comments on its passage.

The House unanimously passed sweeping legislation on Wednesday aimed at improving veteran mental health care and preventing suicide. Now, that bill heads to the White House and the president to become law.

The top Veterans Affairs lawmaker in the Senate pledged to pass a major veterans' mental healthcare bill in a letter to America's veterans ahead of Memorial Day. On Sept. 23, 2020, Congress made good on that promise.

That legislation is the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act. It was one of the first bills unanimously passed out of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in January after Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, took over as chairman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., upon his retirement. In August, it passed unanimously in the Senate and on Wednesday the House also passed it unanimously. It now heads to the president's desk for his signature to become law. 

"This is a monumental day," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Montana, said following the vote. "Passage of my landmark bill honoring a Montana hero sends a very important message to veterans — and all Americans — that Congress can come together during politically turbulent times to do the right thing and support those who have sacrificed on our behalf." 

The omnibus bill is named for Commander John Scott Hannon, a former leader of SEAL Team Two, member of SEAL Team Six and Special Operations and policy staff officer at U.S. Special Operations Command, who retired in 2012. Six years later, Hannon died of suicide after 23 years of service. 

Hannon received treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, severe depression and bipolar disorder at the VA in Montana. He was committed to helping others while seeking his own recovery. Volunteering with the National Alliance for Mental Illness he spoke candidly at events about his wartime injuries.

“Scott was open about his invisible wounds of war and found solace and recovery in many of the causes that also allowed him to give back to his fellow veterans and his community. He was passionate about improving veterans’ access to mental health care and integrating service animals into mental health care. Scott worked closely with Montana Wild and VA Montana to develop a group therapy program for veterans that involved birds of prey. Scott was embraced on his journey to recovery by his family, friends, and community. He died from his invisible wounds of war Feb. 25, 2018,” his biography reads.

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. 

"One life lost to suicide is one too many," Tester said, thanking Hannon's family for partnering with him to "honor their son, father and brother" with a bill that will "better treat service-connected mental health conditions and help heal the invisible wounds of war." 

The bill aims to improve mental health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs through initiatives including: 

  • Providing grants to community organizations working to help veterans in crisis;
  • Ordering VA to study complementary and alternative care such as animal therapy, yoga, meditation, acupuncture and tai chi;
  • Studying expansion of care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges;
  • Transition assistance;
  • Hiring more suicide prevention coordinators for each VA.

The bill would provide about $174 million over five years for VA mental health care services, including the grant program for local organizations.

"Every day we lose 20 veterans to suicide and this pandemic has further worsened mental health conditions and resulted in more veterans being isolated from friends and family," Moran said. "Passing this legislation to serve veterans was our top priority this Congress, and I look forward to the president quickly signing the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act into law.”

"Today is a win for veterans," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Mark Takano, D-California, said. "There is still so much more we need to do to comprehensively reduce veteran suicide, but this is a good first step." 

Ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, said making a difference for veterans requires an "all-hands-on-deck approach." 

"While our work to end veteran suicide is not over, today is an unquestionably important step in ensuring that those most in need receive the support they have earned," he said. 

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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