By Daniel Malloy – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A bill to fight veteran suicides, quickly moved by Georgia Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson on Wednesday in his debut as a committee chairman, could be the new Congress’ first bill signed into law.
The Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act aims to improve mental health treatment for veterans by repaying student loans for psychiatrists who join the Department of Veterans Affairs and developing peer support groups and community outreach with veterans’ service groups.
The issue hits home for Isakson, the new Senate Veterans Affairs Committee chairman, who staged his first hearing Wednesday to move the bill unanimously to the floor and set the committee rules.
A 2013 inspector general’s report blamed mismanagement at the Atlanta VA Medical Center’s mental health unit for three patient deaths over the course of two years. Isakson and other members of the Georgia delegation called attention to the facility’s problems with visits and a hearing. The VA appointed a new director, and Isakson said he was pleased with the hospital’s progress.
“I’ve worked closely with Leslie Wiggins, who is the director of the VA hospital in Atlanta now, to correct the problems that they were having, but also do best practices around the country,” Isakson said. “This bill enhances the best practices of the VA so we can ensure that veterans who need their help get their help.”
Isakson said he was dedicating his chairmanship to Noah Harris of Ellijay, who died while serving in Iraq in 2005. The chairman carried a gold coin with Harris’ mantra while serving as a sniper: IDWIC, an acronym for “I do what I can.”
The suicide prevention bill easily passed the House last year but was held up in the Senate in December by then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who was concerned about its $22 million price tag. The White House urged the Senate to pass the bill, but it adjourned without acting.
This month the House unanimously passed a tweaked bill that would allow the VA to use existing funds to cover the cost so it would not authorize new spending. Isakson said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is on board to bring the bill up soon, as it likely could pass unanimously without sucking up valuable floor time.
Behind the scenes, Isakson persuaded senators from both sides of the aisle to withdraw amendments to the bill — which would have elongated the process by perhaps forcing a House-Senate conference committee.
“If we had not done what we did, this act would have eventually become law in June, rather than hopefully becoming law in February,” Isakson said.
President Barack Obama has promised to veto most of the new Republican Congress’ agenda, starting with a bill to approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline that the Senate is considering this week.
“I saw the president last night, but obviously there were a few people around him” at the State of the Union address, Isakson said. “I think the president would be happy to find something he can agree with Congress on.”
Isakson is the Senate’s only double chairman, as he also heads the Ethics Committee, which mostly does its work behind closed doors. Taking the helm of the VA panel for the first time, Isakson aimed for bipartisanship and efficiency.
His agenda includes implementing changes in VA health care policy that passed last year in the wake of a series of scandals and continuing to investigate problems throughout the country. He promised “field trips” to places such as Phoenix, where managers reportedly retaliated against whistleblowers, and the VA headquarters in Washington to work closely with new Secretary Bob McDonald.
The goals were shared by the committee’s Democrats in one of few areas Congress has been able to find shared purpose.
“This committee in my experience has been the most bipartisan of any in the United States Senate,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn, the committee’s top Democrat. “So we have a tremendous opportunity ahead.”