Senate passes major veteran mental healthcare bill aimed at suicide prevention

Abbie Bennett
August 05, 2020 - 7:41 pm
VeteranSuicideCrisisLine

Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

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 Wednesday, the Senate made good on that promise.

That legislation is the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Healthcare Improvement Act. It was one of the first bills unanimously passed out of the committee in January after Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, took over as Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., upon his retirement. 

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 an estimated 20 veterans die by suicide daily, and that number has stagnated or even worsened in recent years, despite continued spending and expanded programs and services aimed at preventing those deaths. 

On the House floor Wednesday, Moran said there is "no single explanation or reason for suicide and there is no single treatment or prevention strategy. We all have the obligation to help those who served our nation ... to help fix this tragedy. Every day that we fail to act we lose another 20 veterans to suicide ... They need our help." 

Senate Veterans Affairs ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., said "there is no better way of supporting our veterans than passing this bill" and promised that it "isn't the final bill" Senators will pass this year to aid veterans, but "today we can be proud of senators for doing something that needed to be done that's going to help our veterans and move this country forward."

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

  • Studying expansion of care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges;
  • Transition assistance;
  • Providing private grants to local groups working to help vets;
  • Calling for a study of complementary and alternative care such as animal therapy, yoga, meditation, acupuncture and tai chi;
  • Studying how effective VA efforts so far have been to combat suicide;
  • 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.

"This bipartisan legislation will give the VA and communities serving veterans across the nation the necessary tools and resources to better serve you in several key ways. This legislation will provide funding to organizations already serving you in our communities across the country in an effort to bolster their work so that you may benefit, and will direct VA to begin targeted precision medicine research which will greatly improve how mental health conditions are diagnosed and treated," Moran wrote in a letter addressed to the nation's veterans ahead of Memorial Day. "This crucial bill will provide greater access to the care you deserve, improve rural access to mental health care and make targeted investments in promising innovative and alternative treatment approaches." 

Now that it has been approved by the Senate, the bill moves on to the House for consideration, though it could be delayed until after the November election.

The bill shares priorities and goals with several suicide prevention bills under consideration by the House Veterans Affairs Committee and ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., called for a quick vote on the Hannon bill.

“It includes numerous provisions that would help fulfill our calling to support and protect veterans at risk,” Roe said in a statement following the Senate vote. “While we cannot bring the thousands of (veterans lost to suicide) back, we can solemnly honor them and all of our nation’s veterans by delivering this bill to President Trump’s desk without any further delay.”

But the House and Senate will have to negotiate a package to pass out of Congress to the president first.

"Our nation has a duty to make certain that you have the support and resources you need. You are highly capable and motivated individuals, who are a valuable addition to any community — yet too often the invisible wounds of war can go undiagnosed and untreated," Moran said. "For those of you who might be experiencing those wounds, I want you to know that you are not alone, we appreciate you and you deserve the best our nation has to offer." 

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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