The House version introduced by Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, unanimously passed in March, while the Senate was scheduled to vote on Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s companion bill upon returning from the August recess. Coburn said last week he is worried that veterans seeking treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and suicide-related symptoms will be “adjudicated as mentally defective,” which may prevent them from buying guns in the future. The bill was introduced by Boswell in honor of Joshua Omvig, a young man from Grundy Center who took his own life after returning home form an 11-month tour in Iraq.
Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq war veteran and founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Iraq Veterans of America, took issue with Coburn’s rationale. “Sen. Coburn’s claim that Joshua Omvig Veteran Suicide prevention bill really is just a red herring argument using veterans as political pawns in a struggle over gun control legislation,” said Rieckhoff.
“The real issue behind Coburn blocking the Omvig bill is that he hates new proposed gun control legislation (H.R. 2640) which was drafted in response to the Virginia Tech shooting,” Rieckhoff writes on his IAVA blog. “The new bill called NICS would compel government agencies to turn over any list they might have of people who have been 'adjudicated as mentally defective.' The gun lobby says that the background check measure ‘will deter veterans from seeking help and counseling if they think that being helped with something like post-traumatic stress disorder will disqualify them from owning guns.’ Current law already states that people who have been thus adjudicated can not receive gun permits.”
During the House's consideration of the bill, Boswell said, "With more and more veterans returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, new issues have arisen regarding veterans mental health care that have not received attention in the past."
"Some estimates have found that almost one thousand veterans receiving care from the Department of Veterans Affairs commit suicide each year, and one out of five suicides in the United States is a veteran,” Boswell said in a press release. “We must do better for our veterans, and I believe this legislation is a step in the right direction. A screening and tracking process might have provided Joshua with the counseling he needed," added Boswell. "But, the provisions in this bill will help other veterans, and that is very important."
H.R. 327 mandates the screening of all patients at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities for suicide risk factors and the tracking of at-risk veterans. It requires that each VA medical center designate one suicide prevention counselor and for the VA to conduct outreach to veterans and their families on mental health issues. The bill also requires 24-hour availability of a mental health hotline for veterans.
In August, Harkin introduced his companion bill, which also takes a multifaceted approach. It emphasizes the importance of social support, readjustment services, and further research to prevent and treat suicide among our nation’s veterans. “The stress our service men and women endure in combat is enormous and can trigger severe mental health issues after they have returned home,” Harkin said in a press release. “We have a responsibility to treat both the physical injuries and the mental wounds our soldiers suffer.” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is a co-sponsor of the bill.
“The same way swift triage care can save a soldier on the battlefield,” Harkin said in the statement, “accurate diagnosis and delivery of quality mental health care can do the same once the fighting ends. It’s time to provide new resources and eliminate the stigmatization about seeking help. We must focus on increasing programs in detection, prevention, and treatment of suicidal behavior among those who have dedicated their lives to keeping our nation secure.”
Until Coburn removes the hold, passage of the Omvig Bill remains uncertain and delays will have a lasting impact on veterans struggling with PTSD and thoughts of suicide.
Regarding the hold, Rieckhoff examines Coburn’s rationale on his IAVA blog:
Coburn’s office (via the gun lobby) is purposefully combining two unrelated issues to score political points. The facts are that to be “ADJUDICATED” as mentally defective a person must be “a danger to himself or others” “as a result of marked subnormal intelligence, or mental illness, incompetency, condition, or disease” as determined by “by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority.” (27 CFR 478.11)
The key word is “adjudicated.” Even if the VA determines that a veteran has high suicide risk factors (screening for these factors is a provision of the Omvig bill) or even PTSD, they must specifically determine that the veteran is danger to himself. That determination could only happen when the veteran applies for benefits and the VA “adjudicates” their claim. The VA would have to make a specific finding that as part of the veteran’s disability rating that they ARE a danger to themselves, not that they MIGHT be a danger.
The Omvig bill only deals with screening for risk factors. The House version does contain a provision that requires the VA to track those with high risk factors, but neither mentions anything about adjudication. If someone has started receiving counseling for PTSD then they are already being screened for suicidal risk factors and the Omvig bill does not affect the adjudication of the veterans PTSD claim in ANY way.