WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans groups blasted Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn Monday for blocking a bill intended to reduce a suicide epidemic that claims the lives of 22 military veterans every day.
"This is why people hate Washington," said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group.
Rieckhoff accused Coburn of single-handedly blocking a bill that could save the lives of thousands of veterans.
Coburn, a Republican, is retiring after 10 years in the Senate. In a floor speech Monday night, he defended his actions, saying the bill would not accomplish its stated goal and duplicates programs that already exist.
Instead of passing the $22 million bill, Coburn said lawmakers should hold the Department of Veterans Affairs accountable for frequently failing to serve veterans.
"I don't think this bill would do the first thing to change what's happening" in terms of veterans' suicides, Coburn said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the bill a targeted measure that would help ensure that programs to prevent veterans' suicide work as expected.
The bill would require the Pentagon and Veterans Affairs Department to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs. It also would establish a website to provide information on mental health services available to veterans, offer financial incentives to psychiatrists who agree to work for the VA and create a pilot program to assist veterans transitioning from active duty to veteran status.
Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev., supported the measure in personal terms, noting that his father committed suicide. "I know firsthand of the heartbreak caused by the needless, preventable death of a loved one," Reid said.
The House approved the bill last week. The measure is named for Clay Hunt, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran from Houston who killed himself in 2011. Hunt's parents appealed to Coburn last week to withdraw his objection, but he declined.
Blumenthal said he would reintroduce the bill in the new Congress if the measure fails this week.
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