Politics

House passes bill focused on mental health of female veterans

Under a House bill passed Tuesday, the Department of Veterans Affairs would have to look closely at whether its mental health and suicide prevention programs meet the needs of the growing number of female veterans.

A study released over the summer found that women who have served in the military commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of those in the civilian population.

“One suicide is way too many, and the VA, in my opinion, has to make this the highest priority,” said Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village), sponsor of the bill.

Brownley's measure also would require the VA to collect data specifically on how trauma affects female service members.

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“Women’s experiences in the military are different than men’s -- and certainly their trauma is different,” Brownley said after the vote. “There’s no data that we know of right now that spells out some of those trends.”

The bill, Brownley said, is an update to the Clay Hunt SAV Act, which President Obama signed in February 2015. That law mandates that the VA review its suicide prevention programs, provide veterans with financial and medical assistance related to mental health and make information about treatment more readily available.

“This is an important first step,” Brownley said. “It’s pretty simple and straightforward, but it’s also a really important direction that the VA needs to go in."

The legislation also includes language, sponsored by Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), that orders the department to set treatment standards for veterans who served in classified or intelligence positions.

“It’s hard enough for veterans who are returning from action to find people to talk to about stuff. That problem is doubled when you’re in intelligence, because you can’t talk about anything. So it is important to reach out to that community in particular,” Peters said.

Coronado residents Howard and Jean Somers inspired the measure. They have petitioned Congress to act since their son, Sgt. Daniel Somers, committed suicide in 2013 while waiting for individual treatment from the VA for post-traumatic stress.

The House on Tuesday also passed the Career-Ready Student Veterans Act, sponsored by Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside), which requires a college program to either be accredited or meet the requirements for state licensing or certification in order to be eligible for GI Bill benefits.

The bill is trying to keep veterans from earning a degree under the GI Bill that doesn’t satisfy the requirements needed for a career.

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In an attempt to speed up disbursement of veterans' benefits, the House also passed by voice vote a bill -- sponsored by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Corona) -- that would instruct the VA to allow colleges to work together in reporting to the department on a veteran’s enrollment. Currently, each college has to certify that a veteran student is enrolled before the VA will pay. Calvert said the change would benefit multi-college districts like the Riverside Community College District.

“I strongly believe that we should take whatever steps necessary to simplify the veterans' education benefits our service members earned,” he said in a statement.

sarah.wire@latimes.com

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