President Barack Obama said during his State of the Union speech on Tuesday that if you want to get the job done and done right, “hire a veteran.” But despite the president’s endorsement, veteran advocacy groups aren't happy with what they heard in the speech. They are especially unhappy that last year’s Veterans Health Administration scandal and ongoing suicide epidemic among veterans did not feature more prominently.
The outrage from veterans' groups comes as a bill aimed at preventing veteran suicides passed unanimously in the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday after making it through the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee two weeks ago. The bill will now be sent to the full Senate for consideration.
Despite progress on the bill in Washington, there are concerns among veterans groups about what they say is a general lack of interest in veterans from the Obama administration.
“Unfortunately, given the president’s recent bypass, or should I say snub, of the Phoenix VA medical center, the lack of emphasis on veterans does not come as much of a surprise,” said Diane Zumatto, national legislative director of AMVETS, or American Veterans, referring to Obama’s Jan. 8 trip to Arizona, where his motorcade drove past the scandal-hit hospital without stopping.
The State of the Union speech comes at a politically sensitive time for veterans. The deaths of 40 patients at the Phoenix VA hospital last year resulted in an investigation that uncovered false records and substandard levels of care at VA centers across the country. The subsequent political and media backlash prompted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, as well as a $16.3 billion bill that introduced an overhaul of the VA.
During his speech (full text here) Obama did mention the consequences of the scandal, saying that the government had made “strides towards ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest-quality care” and had slashed “the backlog that had too many veterans waiting years to get the benefits.”
Those issues are still the subject of ongoing investigations. Access to mental health and suicide prevention for veterans have been outstanding issues. According to the most recent statistics from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, an estimated 22 veterans are committing suicide on average per day, or one every 65 minutes. The figure is about double the civilian suicide rate.
Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he was disappointed that Obama had “remained silent on critical veterans issues,” and placed his organization's weight behind the pending suicide bill.
“After the VA scandal and marking more than 13 years of combat, veterans were hoping for a proactive policy agenda from our President,” said Rieckhoff. “But we refuse to have our issues swept under the rug, and we will not rest until Congress passes and the President signs the Clay Hunt SAV Act, designed to combat the tragedy of 22 veterans dying by suicide every day.”
The bill, named after marine veteran Clay Hunt, who committed suicide in 2011, will authorize to spend $22 million to establish a peer support and community outreach program; boost accountability by evaluating mental health programs across the country; and start a pilot program repaying the student loan debt of psychiatrists, so they can be recruited more easily by the VA.
The bill passed the House last December but was held up in the Senate by Republican Tom Coburn, who criticized the bill, saying its measures replicated the existing $16.3 billion VA bill and would not actually save lives. Coburn hassince retired from the Senate.