The clock is counting down for Congress to pass key veteran suicide prevention bills

Abbie Bennett
September 10, 2020 - 4:36 pm
VeteranSuicideCrisisLine

Photo by Zachary Hada/55th Wing Public Affairs

After months of work, pressure is building for the House and Senate to pass key veteran suicide prevention legislation as a major election looms and before this session of Congress ends. 

Both Veterans Affairs committees made preventing veteran suicide a top priority this Congress, as continued increased spending and efforts to stem the tide fail to make substantive progress. 

So what's the holdup? 

Each chamber has its own package of suicide prevention measures it wants expedited through Congress to the president's desk, and they're working to iron out a deal that could advance bills from both sides.

In the Senate, it's S.785, 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, senators, veteran advocates and now Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, increasingly pressured the House to quickly pass the legislation, or risk endangering more lives. 

"It's our understanding that this is a bill that would be signed by the president and so would become law," Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said Wednesday. "Any delay in getting us to that position in my view costs those who served our country the potential loss of life." 

But House Veterans Affairs Committee Democrats, led by Chairman Mark Takano, D-California, insist the Hannon bill leaves gaps the House package could address, including specific measures to improve mental health care for women and Native veterans, providing emergency mental health care for all veterans, improving firearms safety and more. 

"It would have been easier for this committee to simply pass S.785 as it was sent over to us by the Senate," Takano said. "However, I prefer to take the harder, more substantive approach." 

Takano argued it would be "wrong to congratulate ourselves on passing a suicide prevention bill" that did not address those additional issues. 

Former VA Chief of Psychology Russell Lemle of the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute and a member of the president's task force aimed at reducing suicide, said he believed additional firearms safety would be a "absolutely critical addition" to Congressional legislation aimed at preventing veteran suicide. The Hannon bill does not include such a measure. Patrick Murray of Veterans of Foreign Wars and Joy Illem of Disabled American Veterans agreed that additional lethal means training would be essential, along with other House proposals. 

Both Takano and Moran vowed to work together to advance suicide prevention legislation, but while Moran said Wednesday that the committees' leaders had reached "an understanding" to expedite bills, Takano on Thursday said that though a deal may be close, it had not been finalized and the two had yet to speak directly. 

"I think we have a pathway there, a very good pathway," Takano said. "It's my hope we will find a way to an agreement to move forward with both of our pieces of legislation and I think we can do that in the time remaining ... I think we're close, we're very close. It's not correct to say there's no agreement, but we still have some final touches." 

Top Veterans Affairs lawmakers hammering out deal to pass major veteran suicide prevention bills

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. 

Those statistics have sparked growing urgency among lawmakers in Congress and VA leaders, especially as time winds down for this session of Congress and the election approaches. 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. As of Sept. 10, 25 legislative days were left for the House in 2020, with major legislation left undone, including finalizing the National Defense Authorization Act and any additional COVID-19 relief efforts. 

Veteran advocates told lawmakers in the Senate and House this week they're anxious about time running out to get the suicide prevention efforts passed before the end of the year. 

The American Legion urged the chambers to work together to settle their differences

"We strongly urge that the committees in both chambers of Congress move expeditiously to reconcile their versions of the S.785 to ensure that this critical legislation is passed before the end of the 116th Congress," said Katie Purswell, deputy director of health policy for the American Legion.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO and Navy veteran Jeremy Butler said his group supports the House's efforts to pursue legislation to complement the Hannon bill, but IAVA is also urging quick passage for the Senate measure.

"We have strong concerns that given the limited number of legislative days and the upcoming elections in November, there may not be enough time to negotiate and pass this legislation by the end of the year," Butler said, adding that he hopes the chambers agree to pass the Hannon bill and then move forward with the House package. 

"The clock is mostly run out. The need is now and the need is great," ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee said during the hearing. Following the hearing, Roe released a statement saying that veterans "deserve action and I hope that we can deliver for them in the extremely limited time we have left." 

Takano said he understood the push behind the Hannon bill, but on its own, the legislation isn't enough.

"I understand the urgency to pass S.785, but what gives me pause are the veterans we leave behind in legislation that is not inclusive of veterans who have historically been excluded," he said. "Is this rush at their expense? I think saying 'perfect is the enemy of the good' rings hollow when there are veterans who have come to expect less than mediocre. Who do we continue to leave behind without any additions?" 

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.

‘Lower your shield’: How Marines are defending each other in their deadliest battle yet

Trump is the first president in 130 years to recognize 'the scourge of veteran suicide,' VA Secretary says

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

Want to get more connected to the stories and resources Connecting Vets has to offer? Click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter.