WASHINGTON — A bill aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic among military veterans cleared a Senate committee on Wednesday, as lawmakers vowed quick action on a measure that was blocked in the last session of Congress.
The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously approved a bill named for Clay Hunt, a 26-year-old veteran who killed himself in 2011. The bill is aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic that claims the lives of 22 military veterans every day.
The House-passed measure would require the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs and make information on suicide prevention more easily available to veterans. It also would offer financial incentives to psychiatrists and other mental health professionals who agree to work for the VA and assist military members as they transition from active duty to veteran status.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the new chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said he hoped the bill would be the first signed into law this year by President Barack Obama.
The bill "could not be more important," Isakson said, noting that more veterans have died from suicide in recent years than in combat in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Isakson and other lawmakers from both parties were frustrated last month when the measure was blocked by then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Coburn, who retired this month after 10 years in the Senate, said the bill would not accomplish its stated goal and duplicated existing programs. He also objected to the measure's $22 million price tag.
Isakson said the latest version of the bill addresses Coburn's concern about cost, ordering the Veterans Affairs Department to find money for suicide-prevention programs within its $154 billion budget.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the bill a "down payment" toward a more comprehensive solution for military suicides.