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IAVA Responds to Sen. Coburn’s Complaints about the Clay Hunt SAV Act

Earlier today, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released his reasoning for blocking the Clay Hunt SAV Act, which would increase veterans’ access to mental health care. IAVA responded to his document: http://1.usa.gov/1ArMW6L.

With more than 22 veterans a day still dying from suicide year after year, it is insufficient to say that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) already has the resources and focus to fight this ongoing crisis. If it did, we would have already seen a marked decrease in veteran suicides instead of a steady continuation of the epidemic. It is clear that something needs to be done. This bill will not solve this problem alone, but it is a good start. It is not only disappointing, but it is dangerous and dishonorable for one single senator to simply complain about and block efforts to combat the veteran suicide crisis without having offered any alternative solutions of his own.

To specifically address Dr. Coburn’s stated concerns with the Clay Hunt SAV Act, which he finally publicly unveiled only hours before the Senate is expected to adjourn for the year, we offer the following rebuttal:

Cost: With an estimated 22 veterans dying each and every day from suicide, the ironic CBO score of $22 million over 5 years for this bill is infinitely minuscule when compared to the normal price tag of legislation that Congress passes every week, most of which Dr. Coburn ends up supporting. Every parent, spouse, child, or family member who has lost a veteran to suicide would gladly pay the $22 million price tag him or her self if they had it. Dr. Coburn’s claim that he takes issue with the lack of offsets in the bill is belied by the fact that Dr. Coburn voted in July of this year for a $50 billion (with a “B”) bill without offsets to address VA access issues. Dr. Coburn is clearly not taking a principled stand by objecting to this bill based on a lack of offsets, but is rather selectively cherry-picking excuses to single-handedly kill a veteran suicide prevention bill that every other Republican and Democrat in both the House and Senate now supports. As Dr. Coburn points out, the bill actually does not require any new spending to be created. This provision forces the VA to find efficiencies within its existing budget to cover the cost of the critical initiatives in the Clay Hunt SAV Act. Furthermore, the bill also requires a thorough, independent evaluation of suicide prevention initiatives in order to specifically help the VA identify those which are ineffective and those which are particularly effective so that the VA’s limited resources can be more efficiently directed towards programs that have demonstrably better outcomes for veterans.

Pilot Program for Psychiatrists: Psychiatrists, the most specialized and advanced of mental health professionals, are not currently listed among the professions that VA must hire or focus on recruiting, while psychologists and other types of mental health professionals are specifically enumerated in law. While VA may have the authority to interpret current law to be able to hire more psychiatrists by extension, the Department is clearly in denial about the current dearth of psychiatrists it has within its network and is unable to recruit enough psychiatrists to fill current vacancies. In Oklahoma alone, the VA medical centers in Oklahoma City and Muskogee have a combined 6 psychiatry vacancies that these facilities are trying to fill but cannot. A recruitment incentive specifically for psychiatrists would force the VA to focus on hiring for this critical need specialty and require the Department to utilize this incentive in doing so.

Pilot Program for Community Outreach: Veterans consistently report that peer support is among the most effective therapies in dealing with mental injuries. While the VA has started incorporating these programs into veterans’ care and the President has ordered the hiring of additional peer support counselors, this bill would organize the utilization of those counselors into a structured and robust program better suited to the needs of veterans.

Oversight. Dr. Coburn continuously underlines the word oversight in his list of complaints about the Clay Hunt SAV Act. We agree that oversight should be vigorously pursued, but it should be pursued simultaneously alongside proactive solutions. The Veterans’ Affairs Committees conduct oversight continuously, yet Dr. Coburn has made no effort to sit in on those oversight hearings and participate in Congress’s oversight activity. VSOs are also an important partner in oversight, and the flags and issues we and our partner organizations raise from our members and our own investigatory and research work serve a duplicitous oversight function. However, Dr. Coburn has been largely uninterested in what VSOs have to say and the solutions we have proposed (e.g., the Clay Hunt SAV Act) to deal with the issues that we and the VA committees have identified (e.g. an ongoing suicide crisis) in the course of our ongoing oversight work.

If Dr. Coburn – who has been largely absent from the discourse surrounding the challenges facing the veteran community as well as from discussions about proactive solutions to those challenges – isn’t keen on this bill, he is welcome to cast a solitary vote against it. However, it is tyrannical, selfish, undemocratic, and dishonorable for him to attempt to single-handedly block a bill that makes a good faith effort to begin to address an issue as critical as veteran suicide on the last day of the 113th Congress after the House unanimously passed the bill and when 99 other senators would allow for its passage right now.

If Dr. Coburn blocks this bill, this horribly misguided vote will be his legacy, and it will unfortunately be based on misinformation and misguided advice about what the Clay Hunt SAV Act actually does. We implore Dr. Coburn to lift his hold on this bill and do the right thing for America’s veterans and their families.

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