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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Unanimously-Passed Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill Placed on Hold

From the Waterloo/Cedar Falls [IA] Courier:

TULSA, Okla. (AP) --- Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn is vowing to continue his hold on a bill intended to prevent suicides among military veterans. The bill, authored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is named for Joshua Omvig, a 22-year-old Army reservist from Grundy Center. Omvig committed suicide in December 2005 after returning from Iraq.

Coburn, a Republican, blocked the bill before Congress left for its break in August, preventing the measure from passing under a process called unanimous consent. The bill passed the House 423-0.

Coburn objects to provisions of the bill that would mandate mental health screening for all veterans receiving medical care, according to the Tulsa World and The Oklahoman. He also said the bill would duplicate efforts already undertaken by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to identify mental illness and counsel veterans who might be suicidal. Coburn also said the Omvig bill would mandate "tracking" veterans who receive mental health services, a violation of civil liberties and possible threat to veterans' future job prospects.

Harkin said the legislation was supported unanimously by veterans groups. He said Senate committees held three hearings on the bill. Harking called Coburn's objections "unfathomable" and "unfounded." In a speech on the Senate floor, Harkin challenged Coburn's assertion the bill would duplicate efforts at Veterans Affairs. He said the department had developed some initiatives but had not implemented them.

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[UPDATE Sep 23, 2007]: Editorial, Des Moines Register:

Last March, the U.S. House unanimously passed a veterans suicide-prevention bill named after the Iowan. The legislation requires the VA to screen patients for suicide risk factors and track those at risk. It also requires one suicide-prevention counselor at every VA medical center.

Sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, the legislation in the Senate is being stalled by Oklahoma's Tom Coburn. On Wednesday, the two were reportedly talking, and we hope working through differences.

The bill should become law.

Congress should do all it can to ensure troubled soldiers are helped.

But Congress can only do so much.

The real challenge is getting soldiers to visit a medical professional with the VA - for any reason.

In Iowa, new veterans number more than 9,100, but fewer than 2,000 have enrolled for veterans benefits, which includes mental health treatment, according to the most recent numbers available. Many don't visit health professionals who could identify mental-health problems and provide help.

One possibility: All branches of the military should consider mandating soldiers report for a mental health assessment after they return from war. Requiring everyone to attend removes any anxiety about feeling "singled out."

Even the most well-adjusted individuals can come out of a war with problems. Exposure to extreme violence and threats to their lives changes soldiers. The VA estimates more than 5,000 veterans commit suicide each year, and suicide rates are 35 percent higher for Iraq vets than for the general population. Requiring them to report for screening and counseling, if needed, should be considered.

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