WASHINGTON (AP) - Congress took steps Tuesday to reduce the rate of suicide among former members of the armed forces, but only after a senator known for backing gun owner's rights succeeded in removing a plan to track veterans treated for mental illnesses.
The bill is named for Joshua Omvig, a 22-year-old Army reservist from Grundy Center, who shot himself in December 2005 after returning from Iraq. Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa, sponsored the legislation.
The measure passed 417-0 and was sent to President Bush for his signature.
The concept comes amid growing concerns about mental health issues borne by veterans who experienced combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Unfortunately, suicide prevention has become a major part of our responsibility to both active duty and to our veterans," said Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
According to Filner, as many Vietnam veterans have committed suicide as died in the original war - more than 58,000 men and women.
"It's a terrible statistic," Filner said.
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Confirming that figure is difficult, but the Veterans Administration Inspector General in a report last May noted the agency's mental health officials estimate 1,000 suicides per year among veterans receiving care within its system. The report goes on to suggest as many as 5,000 suicides per year among veterans.
The bill would require mental health training for VA staff, screen suicide risk factors for veterans who receive VA care, refer at-risk veterans for counseling and treatment and designate a suicide prevention counselor at each VA medical facility. The legislation also supports outreach and education for veterans and their families, peer support counseling and research into suicide prevention.
"There are thousands of veterans out there who need our help, and the time to act is now," Boswell said.
The House passed a similar bill last March on a unanimous vote, but Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blocked the measure until he succeeded in making changes to "help protect the privacy of veterans' medical records and prevent the unnecessary tracking of veterans."
Coburn was concerned a provision requiring the VA track veterans under its care could result in some people who are treated for mental health issues later being denied the right to buy a firearm.
Coburn raised similar objections to a bill designed to tighten requirements for states to share gun purchasers' mental health information with the federal government. That legislation was inspired by the shootings at Virginia Tech.
Coburn said that bill does not pay for appeals by veterans or other Americans who feel they were wrongly barred from purchasing a gun after being tagged as having a mental illness.