The legislation, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Jan. 12, 2015, will provide critical measures to improve mental health care and increase suicide prevention resources for American service members. It will now head to the President’s desk for his signature.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, introduced by U.S. Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), will require third-party evaluation of existing suicide prevention programs at the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to gauge their effectiveness and make recommendations for consolidation, elimination or improvement.
It will also provide for a new website that offers veterans information regarding available mental healthcare services; create a pilot loan repayment program for VA psychiatrists; and improve the exchange of training, best practices, and other resources among the VA, Veteran Service Organizations (VSO), and nonprofit mental health organizations to enhance collaboration of suicide prevention efforts.
The bill was named for Clay Hunt, a Marine veteran who committed suicide in March 2011 at the age of 28. Clay enlisted in the Marine Corps in May 2005 and deployed to Anbar Province, near Fallujah, in January 2007.
He was shot in the wrist by a sniper’s bullet that barely missed his head, earning him a Purple Heart. Clay recuperated at Twenty Nine Palms, Calif., and then graduated from Marine Corps Scout Sniper School in March 2008.
He redeployed to southern Afghanistan a few weeks later. His unit returned in late October 2008 and he was honorably discharged from the Marines in April 2009. After returning home, Clay suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for many years and struggled with inadequate care at his local VA hospital before taking his own life.
The legislation is supported by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on Nov. 19, 2014, Sen. Moran pressed the VA on the importance of supporting veterans struggling with mental health issues.
Sen. Moran was moved to hear from Clay’s mom, Susan Selke, who testified before the committee. Susan shared her son’s story of reliving the traumatic experiences of war and his disappointment when the VA failed to offer the care he needed to treat his despair.
To address the lack of mental health care professionals in the VA and improve suicide prevention over the last decade, Sen. Moran has asked the VA to utilize Community Mental Health Centers (CMHC) to address the shortfall.
The Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014, passed by Congress and signed into law in August, provides that a veteran can receive care from the doctor or provider of their choice if they live more than 40 miles from a VA medical center or Community Based Outpatient Clinic (CBOC.) Sen. Moran raised concerns that many times a veteran will live near a VA facility, but that facility will not offer the mental health services they need.