WASHINGTON — Rep. Tim Walz’s veterans suicide prevention bill is now law.
The Clay Hunt SAV Act looks to better publicize Veterans Affairs mental health offerings, provide incentives for psychiatrists to join the VA system and review the VA programs’ effectiveness at suicide prevention. The House and Senate passed the legislation unanimously earlier this year, and President Barack Obama signed it into law during a White House ceremony on Thursday.
“I think more than anything, it signals that we’re still unified on this issue,” Walz said. “People still understand how important it is, and as we continue to ask the VA to be accountable and make those changes, we’re simultaneously putting new things in place.”
The bill is named for Clay Hunt, a Marine from Texas who died by suicide in 2011 at the age of 28. Hunt had sought mental treatment from the VA after returning from the wars in the Middle East, but was frustrated by the red tape he encountered there. Before his death, Hunt had partnered with veterans service organizations to lobby for mental health care on Capitol Hill, even meeting with Walz’s office about it.
When he died, Hunt’s family, friends and fellow advocates began pushing Congress to take action on veterans suicide, a problem the VA estimates claims 22 lives a day. The result was the Clay Hunt Act, written by Walz and a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
In an East Room signing ceremony Thursday, Obama praised Hunt as “selfless and brave,” and “a passionate advocate for veterans.” He said lawmakers are committed to helping veterans get the care they need when they return from combat, and called the bill a first step toward that goal.
“We’re here today to pick up where Clay left off,” Obama said. “The best way to honor this young man who should be here is to make sure that more veterans like him are here for all the years to come and able to make extraordinary contributions, building on what they’ve already done for our safety and our security.”
Much of the Clay Hunt law deals with overseeing the effectiveness of VA programs, from those already on the books to new ones the law creates, such as the recruitment of new psychiatrists. Walz said the VA has committed to strengthen its mental health programming, and he said he discussed the matter with VA Secretary Bob McDonald at Thursday’s bill signing.
“The only thing I ever got from him was, ‘Let’s do this together, let’s get this done,’ ” Walz said. “I’ve never seen that type of buy-in. He said, ‘Let’s make this work.’ ”
Veterans groups have a long list of mental health policies they want Congress to take up even with Clay Hunt passed. Walz said he hopes lawmakers will work to tackle those with as much bipartisanship as they did with this law.
“You don’t get to pop in on an issue like veterans care, veterans suicide, and then pop out,” Walz said. “This is a deep dive. You’re in it for the long haul.”
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry