House Passes Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act

October 23, 2007
The House has just passed the Joshua Omvig Veterans Suicide Prevention Act, H.R. 327, which directs the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to develop and implement a comprehensive program to reduce the incidence of suicide among veterans. The bill is named for an Iraq veteran who took his own life, and recognizes the special needs of veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and elderly veterans who are at high risk for depression and experience high rates of suicide. The bill follows hearings in the Oversight and Veterans Affairs committees seeking to address the tragic mental anguish experienced by many veterans, and is part of ongoing, comprehensive efforts by the new Congress to make veterans a top priority.

Rep. Tim Walz (MN-01): "The numbers show that veterans suicide mental health issues are urgent issues that require Congress' immediate attention. Although veterans make up 10% of our population, one in five people who commit suicide in the United States is a veteran. A full 35% of our veterans returning from Iraq are seeking counseling for mental health issues the first year. PTSD is fast becoming a signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Veterans' Affairs committee has seen in countless hearings that the need to expand care is there. H.R. 327 will meet this need."

Rep. Bruce Braley (IA-01): "This is Joshua Omvig and these are his parents, Randy and Ellen Omvig. I've known Randy and Ellen for almost 20 years. They're warm, caring, decent Iowans who loved their son and who are with us here in spirit as this bill makes its final journey through Congress on its way to the White House. Joshua was a brave young man who served in the military police unit in Davenport, Iowa, which is in the first district which I happen to represent. And Joshua's face has become a national face for the crisis that brings us here today. People who deal with PTSD, especially PTSD involving veterans will tell you this is the hidden combat wound. When these veterans return with PTSD they can be walking on the streets of your city, your town, your community and you will not know that they are suffering because of the nature of the disease."

A government report released in May of last year found that for calendar year 2005, the suicide rate for the Operation Iraqi Freedom area of operations was 19.9 per 100,000 soldiers. That rate is considerably higher than the national average, and the Army's overall reported rate of 13.1 per 100,000. This legislation requires the VA to report within 90 days on status, timeline and costs for complete implementation within 2 years, and recommendations for further legislation to improve suicide prevention programs.

Specifically, this legislation directs the VA to develop a comprehensive program that includes:

· Staff Education - requires the VA to provide education and training for VA staff, contractors, and medical personnel who have interaction with veterans.

· Screening - directs VA to regularly screen and monitor all veterans who receive medical care in the VA health care system for risk factors for suicide and to provide for referral of veterans at risk for suicide for appropriate counseling and treatment.

· Tracking -- requires VA to track veterans.

· Counseling and Treatment -- directs VA to provide for referral of veterans at risk for suicide for appropriate counseling and treatment.

· Designation of Suicide Prevention Counselors - requires VA to designate a suicide prevention counselor at each VAMC.

· Best Practices Research - mandates VA to research the best practices for suicide prevention among veterans, including best practices for helping veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma.

· Research -- requires VA to work with HHS, NIH, CDC, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration when conducting research. Requires VA to conduct mental health research on veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma.

· 24-Hour Mental Health Care - requires VA to provide for the availability of 24-hour mental health care for veterans.

· Hotline -- provides for a toll-free hotline to be available at all times.

· Outreach and Education for Veterans and Families - provides outreach and education for veterans and their families to promote mental health.

· Peer Support Counseling Program -- creates a peer support-counseling program where veterans can volunteer as peer counselors to assist other veterans with mental health and readjustment problems.