Squabble ties up bill on veteran suicides

SEPTEMBER 10TH, 2007 | Harkin for Senate

Washington, D.C. – Two powerful U.S. senators are feuding over a seemingly noncontroversial bill to prevent suicides among returning veterans, a spat that’s seen as reflecting larger tensions in Congress connected to the Iraq war and more.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., have gone toe-to-toe over the Joshua Omvig Suicide Prevention Act, named for a young Army reservist from Grundy Center who took his own life after returning from an 11-month deployment in Iraq.

The legislation would require that all Veterans Administration patients be screened for suicide risk factors, and that the VA track those at risk.

At least one suicide-prevention counselor would be required at every VA medical center, and mental health care would have to be available on a 24-hour basis.

A recent government report estimated 5,000 suicides annually among all veterans and a rising tide of cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Harkin is a sponsor of the bill, and Coburn is refusing to relinquish a hold he has on it, which means the bill can’t quickly move ahead. Harkin calls Coburn’s objections “completely bogus” and “a travesty,” and says they are symptomatic of Republicans slowing congressional action on many key issues.

Coburn’s “approach is almost just to shut the place down,” Harkin said. “How do you deal with that?”

But Coburn called the measure a “feel-good mandate” that is absurd because it requires mental-health screening for all veterans.

“So if you are a World War II vet and you have a sore throat and you go to the VA clinic … you have to undergo a thorough mental-status exam before you can have your sore throat treated,” said Coburn, a physician. “That is Congress hitting a gnat with a cinder block.”

“Most aren’t going to vote against bill”

Coburn said in an interview that he’s not opposed to the goals of the bill but worried that the VA has a record of losing veterans’ data, and that highly personal mental health information will fall into the wrong hands. Veterans who want careers in law enforcement could be harmed by tracking of their mental health status, he said.

“This bill has a great title, but most people haven’t read this bill,” said Coburn. “And most people aren’t going to vote against this bill and won’t stand up to hold it because of the title, and they’re afraid they’re going to get the crap beat out of them.”

Harkin said that mental health screening needs to be a part of primary care, and that receipt of benefits will not hinge on a separate screening.

“Just as a medical professional would ask questions about risk factors for heart disease, it is responsible medicine to ask about risk factors for suicide, especially among this group because the data show how high the incidence is of suicide,” said Harkin.

Aides earlier had said Coburn thought that veterans’ rights to buy guns might be affected if their mental health records were distributed. John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said that “he does have a concern about the Second Amendment issue but that’s been blown out of proportion by critics.”

The Omvig bill has been approved 423-0 in the House, where it was sponsored by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Ia. Harkin has been trying to speed its passage through the Senate.

Harkin: Republicans “tie this place up”

Harkin told Iowa reporters that the battle over the Omvig bill is an example of delays that have plagued Congress this year.

“The minority party here just keeps objecting to everything,” said Harkin, naming Coburn as well as Sen. David Vitter, R-La., and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

Coburn, a foe of congressional earmarks, has placed holds on 80 bills so far this year, his staff members say. Both Republican and Democratic bills have been affected.

Hart said Coburn will put a hold on any bill that spends money without offsetting cuts or that the senator believes deserves more scrutiny. Coburn believes “a lot of what the Senate does is creating press release legislation,” Hart said.

Harkin saw Republicans’ actions differently. “They just stop everything from moving ahead, which ties this whole place up,” he said. “I think this is just another example of why we have such a hard time getting anything done in the Senate.”

Hold on legislation stirs emotions

The debate over Coburn’s hold prompted an emotional exchange Wednesday on the Senate floor between Harkin and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Reid said a 19-year-old soldier from Las Vegas committed suicide in Iraq in late August, after a brief trip home.

“He told his parents and everybody else he didn’t want to go back to Iraq,” Reid said. “I think they said they gave him medicine … and sent him back. In a matter of a few days, he killed himself.

“Suicide is a devastating problem,” said Reid, who recalled the day he learned his own father had killed himself.

“We have had hundreds of soldiers who have killed themselves in Iraq. A lot of them are not suicide reported,” Reid said. “Every day we don’t do this bill is another day someone is going to kill themselves.”

A chief co-sponsor of the bill besides Harkin is Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Ia. Aides to Grassley said Friday that they are hoping meetings among Grassley, Harkin and Coburn staff members will end the dispute.

Meanwhile, Harkin said he will force Coburn to mount a one-man filibuster of the bill if needed. “One way or the other, we will get it done,” Harkin said.

Reporter Jane Norman can be reached at (202) 906-8137 or [email protected]

Click here for the original article on the Des Moines Register

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