Earlier this week the President signed into law H.R. 203, the “Clay Hunt SAV Act,” designed to strengthen the suicide prevention and mental health treatment programs at the Department of Veterans Affairs. This legislation, introduced but stalled in the last Congress, was fast-tracked in this Congress. It was passed unanimously by the House last month, and approved unanimously by the Senate earlier this week.
The legislation is named after Marine veteran Clay Hunt, a sniper who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan before committing suicide after leaving the Marine Corps and unsuccessfully seeking mental health treatment from the VA. Before signing the legislation, the President noted that Clay was “a decorated Marine [who] served with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan. He suffered physical injuries that healed, and he suffered invisible wounds that stayed with him.” To continue the good that Clay started, the President said that “The best way to honor this young man who should be here is to make sure that more veterans like him are here for all the years to come and able to make extraordinary contributions, building on what they’ve already done for our safety and our security.”
THE CLAY HUNT SAV ACT REQUIRES THE VA TO:
- Evaluate its mental health and suicide prevention programs and report that evaluation to Congress
- Publish a website that creates a centralized source of information for veterans about VA’s mental health services
- Establish a pilot program for helping repay student loans for psychiatrists who commit to serve at least two years with the VA
- Establish a pilot program in at least five VA Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) to assist veterans transitioning from active duty and to improve veterans’ access to mental health services, including a community-based peer support network and a community outreach team
- Collaborate with nonprofit mental health organizations; and (6) extends some veterans’ eligibility for VA hospital care.
The law, which is expected to require about $22 million over five years to fund in its current form, cannot be funded by additional appropriations.
Veteran suicide and mental health issues are an acute and growing problem. The official VA figure is that an estimated 22 veterans take their own lives daily. However, that number is not widely considered reliable and other organizations put the number at closer to 35 per day. Even that number does not capture the magnitude of the problem. A USA Today story says that the national VA Suicide Prevention Line was getting roughly 17,000 calls per month as of June 2012, with about 4,500 of those contemplating suicide. Framed strictly in terms of veterans who are considering suicide and reaching out for help, that is an alarming number. And those numbers do not include the uncounted veterans suffering in silence.
The suicide data also do not capture the number of veterans suffering other serious mental health issues, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, or those veterans diagnosed with service-related mental trauma who are being overmedicated with dangerous and harmful psychotropic drugs. Both of those phenomena claim untold lives daily.
The Federal Practice Group applauds the bipartisan support for the Clay Hunt SAV Act. The firm also praises any effort that publicizes the grossly inadequate services available for our veterans facing mental health issues. For that reason, enactment of the Clay Hunt SAV Act is to be commended. However, we cannot rest on this issue.
The Clay Hunt SAV Act commits roughly $4.4 million per year to the issues of veterans suicide prevention and mental health. While that is an improvement when compared to $0, it does not begin to address the chasm between needed and available services. Much more needs to be done. Furthermore, the scope of this issue can only be expected to increase. As more and more troops are committed to and return from conflict zones, veterans mental health issues will not abate. Our veterans have served us and we must serve them.
One of The Federal Practice Group’s Founding Partners, Eric S. Montalvo, is a veteran of three wars. He understands the stresses of military service and the challenges faced by returning veterans. He is also a recognized authority on the issue of veterans’ mental health, having been an invited speaker at numerous conferences and forums at which veterans’ mental health issues were discussed. To help address veterans’ PTSD, TBI, and other mental health issues, Mr. Montalvo established Warrior Relief, a non-profit dedicated to a three-pillar approach to resolving those issues. More information will be available about Warrior Relief in coming weeks.
If you are a veteran facing legal problems associated with service-related mental health issues, The Federal Practice Group may be able to help. We represent veterans with disability claims, military pay entitlement, correction of military records, and other legal issues. Contact us today for a case evaluation.