THE BLOG
10/14/2014 09:19 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

We Must Improve Anti-Suicide and Mental Health Care Programs at the VA

America's men and women in uniform bravely defend our nation and our values. Their skill, dedication and valor are the envy of the world. When their time in uniform is over, they are entitled to world-class health care, a benefit they've earned and that their country is grateful to provide for them. We have to improve Department of Veterans' Affairs (VA) services: wait times are too long, veterans don't have enough options and benefits paperwork takes too long to process, especially for veterans in Maryland that use the Baltimore VA. The bipartisan VA reform bill that was signed into law this summer is a good start -- providing more funding, more flexibility and more accountability -- but we still have work to do.

One of the most critical areas of need is improving our suicide prevention efforts. According to a study conducted by the VA, on average, 22 veterans a day commit suicide. That's one tragedy every 65 minutes and according to analysis done by CNN, that number could be even higher. This is an area where the American people are clearly united that we have to do more. To improve mental health care services for veterans and improve VA programs, Congress should pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act as soon as possible.

The legislation is named for an exceptional young man whose story deserves to be told. Clay Hunt was the kind of individual that has made America a great country. In 2005, when his country needed him, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. Shot in Iraq, he earned a Purple Heart and after he recuperated, he graduated from Marine Corps Scout Sniper School and was deployed to Afghanistan. After leaving the military in 2009, he became an advocate for veterans and worked with Team Rubicon, a humanitarian aid organization.

However, Clay also struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and survivor's guilt as he transitioned to civilian life. He lost friends in both Iraq and Afghanistan and witnessed fellow soldiers being killed. But Clay received a low PTSD disability rating (30 percent) from the VA and struggled to receive adequate counseling and care. He had to wait months to see a psychiatrist and the bulk of his counseling was related to medications he was prescribed. Clay attempted to appeal his PTSD rating and dealt with the VA misplacing his paperwork. In 2011, Clay took his own life.

Weeks later, the VA approved his appeal and rated his PTSD disability at 100 percent.

This can't happen to more veterans like Clay. He relied on the VA and tragically, he didn't get the care he needed in time. That's unacceptable to me.

Introduced by a group of Republicans and Democrats in the House, this bipartisan legislation tackles the problem of veterans' suicide in three key ways, it updates VA mental health care programs so that veterans receive a more accurate diagnosis, it expands efforts to increase the number of psychiatrists at the VA and it increases oversight of VA practices.

Specifically, this bill will amend the requirements for reviewing discharge characterizations for individuals diagnosed with PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury to increase access to mental health care. We can't treat people that the system doesn't fully recognize as needing help. The legislation also authorizes the VA to conduct a student loan repayment program to increase VA recruitment and retention of psychiatrists and requires a review of staffing requirements in each state. Finally, the legislation mandates that a third-party evaluate the mental health care practices and programs at the Department of Defense and VA each year.

This is an issue of national importance. Veterans come from all walks of life and they live in small towns and big cities, in red states and blue states. Maryland is home to over 400,000 veterans and this issue touches all the communities I represent. Thankfully, since being introduced in July, over 100 representatives, including members from both parties, have signed on to the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act. I'm proud to be one of them.

Earlier this year, Clay's mother testified before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. In her testimony, she stated, "the reforms, evaluations and programs directed by this legislation will be critical to helping the VA better serve and treat veterans suffering from mental injuries from war. Had the VA been doing these things all along, it very well may have saved Clay's life."

Congress needs to pass this bill.