BURLINGTON, Vt., Nov. 24 – U.S. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said today he will work to pass bipartisan legislation in the remaining days of this session of Congress to address the crisis of high suicide rates among veterans.
Sanders, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) were successful in passing major veterans’ legislation last summer.
“The suicide rate, especially among young veterans, is tragically high and we have to do everything we can to lower it,” Sanders said of the 22 veterans a day, on average, who take their own lives. “Overall, I believe that the VA is doing a good job in providing mental health services for veterans, but we have to do better.”
Sanders last week chaired a hearing on veterans suicides. Among other panelists, senators heard from Valerie Pallotta of Colchester, Vermont, whose son, Pfc. Joshua R. Pallotta, was deployed in 2010 to Afghanistan with the Vermont National Guard. He took his own life last Sept. 23 after a struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. The panel also heard from Susan Selke, whose son, Marine Cpl. Clay Hunt, took his own life after returning to the U.S. from Afghanistan.
Sanders said he hopes Congress will act before the end of the year to double – from five years to 10 years – the period during which the Department of Veterans Affairs provides unrestricted health care for veterans after they leave the military. This is important because PTSD issues sometimes develop years after service members return from the battlefield.
Sanders also called for increased medical school debt forgiveness for mental health practitioners in order to help the VA recruit the psychiatrists and other professionals needed to meet growing caseloads of veterans with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of their service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sanders and McCain teamed up last summer on legislation – signed into law on Aug. 7 – to improve access to health care for veterans and reform the Department of Veterans Affairs. Both senators said at the time that more help was needed for veterans. McCain recently introduced new legislation to improve mental health care and suicide prevention resources.