military veterans

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. 

Disappearing Veterans in Congress

America turned after World War II to veterans such as Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy to guide the fortunes of the nation. Now the last WWII vet in Congress has died, as the overall number of military veterans in Congress has dwindled.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg's death today ends a string of 115 WWII veterans who served in the U.S. Senate. But it also portends a declining number of veterans serving in Congress.

The Washington Post reports that as recently as the 111th Congress, which ended in January 2011, there were 26 members of the Senate who were veterans. With Lautenberg's death and the retirements of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and South Dakota's Tim Johnson, that number could shrivel to as few as 12 sitting senators when the 114th Congress convenes in January 2015.

The U.S. House has a similar profile, according to the Washington Post. Only 19 percent of current House members saw active military service, which the newspaper says is the lowest percentage since WWII. 

"Sending American men and women to war is the most serious decision Congress can make," writes Chris Cilizza of the Post. "Fewer and fewer people making those decisions in the future will be able to speak from a position of experience and authority on the subject."