Congress remains stymied by many issues, chained by partisanship and trying to sort through the dynamics of a changed Senate majority. But senators from Missouri and Kansas hope an opening exists for improving mental-health offerings for Americans who have served in the military.
Before the holiday recess, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt joined a bipartisan effort to upgrade suicide prevention resources for service members.
And Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran pushed officials from the Department of Veteran Affairs to address the lack of mental-health professionals in the VA.
The efforts come at a critical time as more veterans have cycled home from a decade-plus of war and as the VA, its credibility hurt by scandal, attempts a restructuring.
For some veterans, the heightened focus on mental-health outreach comes too late.
“An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide every day,” Mr. Blunt said during a recent conference call with Missouri reporters. “That’s a shocking number … an unacceptable number.”
The legislation he helped introduce is called the “Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act.” It carries the name of a decorated Marine veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before killing himself at age 28.
Joining the Missourian in introducing the legislation were senators like fellow Republican John McCain and Democrats Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
The bill mandates a third-party analysis of suicide-prevention programs in the Defense Department and VA. It also provides incentives for the attraction of more psychiatrists for the treatment of veterans.
“It would work to improve the suicide prevention programs, improve access to counseling (and) do what we can to help veterans in those situations,” Mr. Blunt said.
Various veterans’ organizations, including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have signed on in support of the legislation.
“Reversing the suicide trend among veterans requires more than one helping hand,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the veterans group, said, praising the public and private collaborations called for in the bill. “We urge Congress to move quickly on this legislation and put their partisanship aside. Lives are on the line.”
Mr. Moran, a Republican, has stressed the need for veterans’ access to mental-health services, especially in largely rural states like Kansas. He noted that the VA can utilize Community Mental Health Centers to address the problems of proximity and lack of VA professionals.
During a Veteran Affairs Committee hearing last month, the Kansan questioned Dr. Harold Kudler, the chief consultant of mental-health services for the Veterans Health Administration.
“Forty miles from a facility is different than 40 miles from a facility that provides the services that the veteran needs,” he told the witness. “So we may have an outpatient clinic someplace, but they don’t provide mental services.”
The Choice Act, signed into law in August, allows veterans to get care from another provider if they live more than 40 miles from a VA medical center or clinic.
Also, Mr. Moran wants the VA to hire more marriage and family therapists and licensed counselors to ensure veterans get timely care in those areas.
Mr. Blunt sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and the appropriations panel that directs money for military matters. Mr. Moran serves on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.