U.S. Reps. Vern Buchanan, Tom Rooney praise bill aimed at preventing veterans suicides

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On Tuesday, the U.S. House unanimously passed legislation to help curb skyrocketing suicide rates and improve mental health care for veterans.

The “Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act” (H.R. 5059) is now going to the Senate for consideration. The Act honors Marine Cpl. Clay Hunt, a Purple Heart recipient who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Clay fell victim to suicide while awaiting PTSD treatment from the Veterans Administration.

“For the last decade, we’ve seen an average of 18-22 veterans commit suicide every single day,” said bill co-sponsor U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney. “These tragic losses of life are heartbreaking and demand action.

“This bipartisan bill builds on the steps we’ve taken to ensure our troops and veterans can get the mental health services they need and deserve.”

Rooney, a Republican from Okeechobee, serves Florida’s 17th Congressional District. Previously, he led efforts to expand access to licensed mental health care professionals for TRICARE beneficiaries, as well as require confidential mental health screenings for returning combat troops.

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, who served six years in the Air National Guard and four years on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, says the bill addresses a serious epidemic responsible for one of every four suicides in Florida.  The Sarasota Republican represents about 66,000 veterans in Florida’s 16th Congressional District.

“The growing prevalence of veteran suicide is a tragedy that must be stopped,” Buchanan said. “Every soldier returning from battle deserves access to the best mental health services our nation has to offer.”

Parts of the $22 million measure are requirements of regular updates and annual evaluations of VA and Defense Department mental health programs. It also authorizes the VA to work with service organizations and mental health nonprofits to improve veteran care. It also calls for increased recruitment of doctors, by offering repayment of loan debt for prospective VA psychiatrists.

“Clay’s story details the urgency needed in addressing this issue,” Clay’s mother said in testimony before Congress. “Not one more veteran should have to go through what Clay went through with the VA after returning home from war.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.