WASHINGTON – Congress took steps Tuesday to reduce the high rate of suicides among former members of the armed forces, but only after a gun rights senator succeeded in removing a plan to track veterans treated for mental illnesses.
The suicide prevention bill, which was passed 417-0 and sent to President Bush for his signature, comes amid growing concerns over mental health issues borne by veterans who have seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, suicide prevention has become a major part of our responsibility to both active duty and to our veterans," said Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee. "It's a terrible statistic," he said: "As many Vietnam veterans have now committed suicide as died in the original war. That's over 58,000."
Confirming that figure is difficult, but the VA Inspector General, in a report last May, noted that Veterans Health Administration mental health officials estimate 1,000 suicides per year among veterans receiving care within VHA and as many as 5,000 per year among all living veterans.
"These are alarming statistics," said committee member Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, would require mental health training for VA staff, screen suicide risk factors for veterans who receive VA care, refer at-risk veterans for counseling and treatment and designate a suicide prevention counselor at each VA medical facility. It also supports outreach and education for veterans and their families, peer support counseling and research into suicide prevention.
"There are thousands of veterans out there who need our help, and the time to act is now," Boswell said.
The House passed a similar bill last March on a unanimous vote, but it was held up in the Senate by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who succeeded in making changes to "help protect the privacy of veterans' medical records and prevent the unnecessary tracking of veterans."
Coburn was concerned that a provision requiring the VA to track the veterans it cares for could result in veterans treated for mental health issues being denied the right to purchase guns.
Coburn raised similar objections to a bill, inspired by the Virginia Tech shootings, to tighten requirements for states to share gun purchasers' mental health information with the federal government. He said the bill does not pay for appeals by veterans or other Americans who feel they have been wrongly barred from buying a gun because they have been tagged as having a mental health problem.
The bill is named after Joshua Omvig from Davenport, Iowa, a 22-year-old Army reservist who killed himself after an 11-month deployment in Iraq.