The Veterans Mental Health Bill—Adjust Your Expectations
It’ll take more than $22 million to end military suicides
In a big show of bipartisanship on Feb. 3, the U.S. Congress passed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act. Lawmakers hope the measure, named for a Marine sniper and veterans advocate, will help alleviate an epidemic of suicide by military vets.
The act has garnered praise from legislators, veterans’ groups, the press and Pres. Barack Obama, who said he will sign the bill. But in truth, the money associated with the new law is a veritable drop in the bucket. America can—and must—do so much better for its vets.
Lawmakers have cited the bill to underscore their commitment to veterans. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, tweeted a typical statement after the Clay Hunt Act passed the Senate.
And indeed, given the severity of the military suicide crisis and the bill’s own limitations, the Clay Hunt Act’s greatest value could be in calling attention to the problem rather than, you know, actually fixing it.
That itself isn’t necessarily objectionable. Legislation can make for useful PR. But if the public mistakenly believes the bill solves the suicide problem, American society could abandon its vets at precisely the moment it should be making a serious, long-term commitment to their care.
The Clay Hunt Act directs the Department of Veterans Affairs to spend just $22 million over five years—that’s $4.4 million per year—hiring a third-party organization to assess the VA’s mental health programs. The new law also mandates that the VA improve its Website for mental health services.
The act also launches two pilot programs. One will offer debt relief to psychiatrists if they come work for the VA. The other program helps transitioning veterans gain access to mental health care at “not less than five” VA locations.
These are good steps. But with as many as 22 veterans committing suicide every day, real progress is going to take more than a few million bucks and a couple pilot programs. The Clay Hunt Act is a good thing. But it shouldn’t be the last thing we do for our vets.
After all, $4.4 million a year isn’t even a rounding error in America’s military spending. The president’s defense budget proposal for 2016 is $534 billion—and that doesn’t include war funding or the VA’s own $168.8-billion request.
The U.S. will spend more than a trillion dollars on national defense this year. Yes, trillion.
Money, and not words, is a true measure of our priorities. By that measure, veterans’ mental health is less important than a few new M-1 tanks or the engines—just the engines—for a couple F-35 stealth fighters.
Despite what former senator Tom Coburn claimed, the Clay Hunt Act didn’t demand hard choices. It was easy for lawmakers to back the bill. But to really improve veterans’ mental health care, Congress, the VA and the military will have to make hard choices … eventually.
They’ll have to make the kinds of hard choices that Cpl. Clay Hunt made when he volunteered to serve in our military.
War Is Boring removed an earlier version of this story at the original author’s request.