Veterans Administration

Veteran Suicide Prevention Bill Unites Congress

In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity, Congress okays legislation aimed at preventing the rising number of suicides by military veterans.

In a rare display of bipartisan unanimity, Congress okays legislation aimed at preventing the rising number of suicides by military veterans.

Congress showed rare unanimous bipartisan support for legislation aimed at addressing the disturbing rise in military veteran suicides, which totals 8,000 deaths annually.

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, named for a Marine who took his life after serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, passed both the House and Senate without a single dissenting vote.

The legislation calls for external audits of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention programsadd a pilot program to pay the student debt of doctors who psychiatric medicine and commit to working with the VA, The bill also authorizes creation of a website that highlights mental health services available through the VA.

There is a $28 million price tag attached to the legislation, but Senate supporters said that amount could be found within the existing VA budget, which itself has been the subject of criticism as being inadequate to handle the growing caseload of returning veterans.

If people wonder what it takes for Congress to act in unison, they now know — more soldiers killing themselves than being killed by enemy fire.

Critics say it shouldn't have take this long for Congress to tackle a problem that has gained increased publicity for the rise in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. They also contend more needs to be done than a website, audit or student debt repayments. Many charitable organizations, such as the Wounded Warrior Project, have stepped in to help, attracting contributions from businesses and private citizens and bringing fresh resources to the battle.

VA Flap Door to Wider Health Care Debate

The current scandal over excessive waiting times at Veterans Administration hospitals is deeply perplexing to the men and women who served their country and are seeking medical care. But it soon may become an issue that affects an even wider population.

Regardless whether Eric Shinseki, secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, stays or leaves, the big question looming on the horizon is whether it makes financial and medical sense to expand the VA system or migrate veterans into the broader health care delivery system.

Congressional hearings are terrific platforms to air concerns and identify inadequacies. Upcoming hearings on the VA system will be filled with high rhetoric, especially after an Inspector General report released this week indicated the average waiting time at the Phoenix VA Hospital was 125 days, not the 25 days VA officials there reported. 

But it will take a different kind of energy to assess whether veterans and the general public would benefit by integrating the VA system into the overall health care system. Key questions will involve whether the VA has the ability to hire and retain all the medical providers it needs, especially psychiatrists and psychologists to treat veterans experiencing symptoms of mental illness. But there also is a question of whether there is enough capacity anywhere in the health care system to address mental health needs. 

Caring for Injured Returning Vets

Miracles of modern medicine can be a mixed blessing for caregivers of returning injured military veterans. They welcome having loved ones back home, but often face a lifetime of painstaking caregiving for their wounded warriors. One mother of an injured vet called it the equivalent of being drafted.

It may be one the most unacknowledged and unattended problems resulting from more than a decade of war.

John Hockenberry, host of "The Takeaway" radio show, featured a series of stories last week about parents and spouses struggling to care for their injured sons, daughters or loved ones and, in the process, becoming extended victims of the wars they fought.

In one especially evocative story, Valerie Brown describes how her life has been turned upside down, including the break-up of her marriage and serious financial stress, in the wake of caring for her son who came home with a traumatic brain injury and partial paralysis from service in Iraq. In an earlier time, Sergeant John Barnes may not have survived his injuries and would have been remembered through pictures and a medal instead of by the constant torment of providing care for someone who never will recover fully. 

Programs such as the Wounded Warrior Project help, especially for injuries that can be overcome, allowing veterans to return to relatively normal lives. But the options are more limited for veterans with injuries with little prognosis for improvement. Their care is endless, which adds stress to parents who worry their injured warriors will outlive them and face an even more uncertain future.