House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees Address Veteran Suicide
By PVA National Staff
On September 10, Maureen Elias, Associate Legislative Director, testified at a legislative hearing before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The hearing reviewed 31 bills, most aimed to address what Chairman Mark Takano (D-CA) referred to as gaps in S. 785, the “Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019,” a bill that would provide grants for suicide prevention and telehealth expansion and bolster the mental health workforce. Specifically, Chairman Takano felt S. 785 needed more language to address the needs of women and minority veterans, emergency care, education of community providers, and expansion of the current VA lethal means safety training.
For many of these bills, PVA worked to improve the language prior to introduction to ensure veterans with catastrophic disabilities would be able to participate in suicide prevention or other mental health programming. Multiple pending bills would give grants to community and non-profit organizations to provide various programming to address suicide. “No matter how great the programming is, if the veterans can’t access them, it’s not doing them any good,” stated Mrs. Elias, in her oral testimony. Some of those bills include H.R. 7879, the “VA Telehealth Expansion Act,” a bill that would provide grants for telehealth services to be provided by VA or through the Veterans Community Care Program, and multiple sections in the “Veterans Comprehensive Prevention, Access to Care, and Treatment Act of 2020” or “Veterans COMPACT Act of 2020.”
Other bills PVA supported include:
- R. 7541, the “VA Zero Suicide Demonstration Project Act”
- R. 7504, the “VA Clinical TEAM Culture Act of 2020”
- R. 7747, the “VA Solid Start Reporting Act”
- R. 7888, the “REACH VET Reporting Act”
- R. 7964, the “Peer Support for Veteran Families Act”
- R. 6092, the “Veteran’s Prostate Cancer Treatment and Research Act”
- Discussion Draft, the “Ensuring Veterans’ Smooth Transition Act”
- Discussion Draft, the “VA Research Infrastructure Act”
- R. 8033, the “Access to Suicide Prevention Coordinators Act”
- R. 8108, the “VA Serious Mental Illness Act”
- R. 8084, the “Lethal Means Safety Training Act”
- R. 8068, the “American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans Mental Health Act”
- R. 8144, the “VA Mental Health Staffing Improvement Act”
- R. 8130, the “VA Peer Specialists Act”
- R. 8145, “To provide for a staffing improvement plan and occupational series for licensed professional mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists of Department of Veterans Affairs, and for other purposes”
PVA expressed concerns over language in H.R. 8084, the “Lethal Means Safety Training Act,” that might limit who is eligible for the training and the amount of time for caregivers to receive the training. PVA also expressed concerns over vague language in H.R. 7469, the “Modernizing Veterans’ Healthcare Eligibility Act,” and the possibility that without more specific language, the commission it would create would work to reduce the number of veterans who are eligible to receive VA healthcare, limit the types of medical services provided, and privatize VA healthcare.
Since the hearing, the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees have come to an agreement to move suicide prevention legislation forward. The House has agreed to bring Senate-passed S. 785 to the House floor soon. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is also planning to markup its COMPACT Act today. It includes nine provisions that complement the Senate’s efforts.
Included in the COMPACT Act is the “Veterans ACCESS Act” which would provide acute crisis care for emergent suicide symptoms, create a pilot program to help veterans build networks of support, require reporting on VA’s Solid Start program, create an education program for family members and caregivers of veterans with mental health disorders, create an Interagency Task Force on Outdoor Recreation for veterans, encourage veterans to receive comprehensive exams to retain certain healthcare eligibility, and improve training for VA’s police force.
It also includes two provisions specific to collection of information on women veterans. This legislation is expected to move through the House quickly and then through the Senate, which has agreed to pass the House legislation.