Lawmakers unveil bill to prevent veteran suicides

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced a bill Thursday to help prevent veteran suicides and reform the way the Veterans Affairs Department treats those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act is sponsored by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

"The VA's staff and budget has increased some 40 percent over the last seven years, but unfortunately suicides are happening at a frightening pace," said Miller at a press conference Thursday. 

"Twenty-two veterans a day is not acceptable by anybody's imagination. This isn't going to change as long as the VA continues to stick to its business-as-usual tactics," he added. 

The bill is named after 28-year-old Marine veteran Clay Hunt, who took his own life in March 2011. Clay had voiced concerns to his parents about the VA losing his files, troubles scheduling appointments and the quality of treatment he received. Two weeks after his first appointment with the Houston VA medical center, he committed suicide. 

"We are failing them," said Duckworth, an Iraq combat veteran. "This legislation would provide accountability for the DOD and VA's mental healthcare and suicide prevention programs." 

The bill would also allow veterans who were punitively discharged from the military as a result of undiagnosed or untreated mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury to have their discharge reviewed so they can qualify for mental healthcare.

It would also authorize the VA to use a student loan repayment program to recruit and retain psychiatrists and establish peer support and community outreach programs, among other initiatives. 

Miller said the bill has not yet been given a price tag by the Congressional Budget Office.

Veterans groups praised the bill, saying more should be done to prevent suicide and treat mental health.

"America has to act. Our veterans have called out for help. We've had hearings, we've had debate, we've had media hits, now it's time for action," said Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO and founder Paul Rieckhoff. 

He urged the president to take executive action. 

"This is not just about Congress ... there's action he can take immediately to support our veterans," he added.