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A Republican Senator Killed a Veterans Suicide Prevention Bill Because It Cost Too Much

Republican Senator Tom Coburn singlehandedly blocked a veterans suicide bill, even as numbers show the epidemic is only getting worse.
December 17, 2014, 9:10pm
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Clay Hunt died from survivor's guilt. When the handsome Houstonian with a sparse auburn beard and tattooed arms shipped out to Iraq, he was what his best friend described as "the all-American kid." But after two tours that included helplessly watching the tragic deaths of two of his fellow Marines, Hunt sunk into a downward spiral of PTSD, depression, and eventually suicide in March 2011, at the age of 28.


"He knew in his head there was nothing else he could have done, and he knew no one could have done anything more," his mom, Stacy Hunt, told 60 Minutes last year. "But in his heart it tore him apart."

In July, Minnesota Congressman Timothy Walz sponsored a bill in Hunt's honor. The Clay Hunt SAV Act would have required independent reviews of the Veterans Affairs Department's suicide prevention program, incentivized civilian psychiatrists to work with veterans, and created a program to help returning service members adjust to life after war. It would have cost just $22 million—a little more than 0.0001 percent of the total US budget. It seemed like a no-brainer and passed easily in the House of Representatives earlier this year.

But the bill didn't get past Tom Coburn, an outgoing Republican senator and infamous obstructionist who goes by the nickname Dr. No, because that's how he always votes. The 65-year-old Oklahoma physician is retiring due to health problems, but in one last act of defiance, he prevented the Clay Hunt bill from even getting a vote in the Senate.

"It's a shame that after two decades of service in Washington, Sen. Coburn will always be remembered for this final, misguided attack on veterans nationwide," Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement. "While we recognize Senator Coburn's reputation as a budget hawk, clearly the minor cost of this bill would have a tremendous payoff to help save lives in our community."


Coburn's main beef with the bill was that it was redundant, and wouldn't be offset by any cuts in spending. That may be true, but it also conveniently overlooks the fact that military suicide continues to be a huge problem. In 2012, the VA estimated that 22 veterans take their lives every day. And as the recent scandal over waiting times at veterans' hospitals revealed, the agency has done a terrible job caring for soldiers seeking mental health treatment (and any other kind of medical treatment, for that matter).

There are signs that the military's suicide epidemic might even be getting worse, as more soldiers return home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Department of Defense's quarterly suicide report, released last week, found that there were 70 suicides 1among service members in the second quarter of 2014. That puts the total number of military suicides at 144 for the first six months of this year, and means were well on our way to outpacing last year's totals.

Notably Coburn, a doctor-turned-politician supports the Iraq War, which has cost $2 trillion to date. As Wonkette points out, the $22 million price tag for the suicide prevention bill is equal to the cost of about 210 minutes of fighting the Iraq war at its height.

"I'm going to be rejecting this bill because it just throws money and doesn't solve the real problem," Coburn said in a speech on the Senate floor Monday. " "Events, catastrophic events, depression, and situations lead people to suicide, not any one individual. They are searching for an answer we have failed to give."

As disheartening as Coburn's swan song was, though, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said lawmakers plan to reintroduce the Clay Hunt SAV bill when Congress returns next year. And with Coburn out of the way, supporters are hopeful it will pass.

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