WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn on Wednesday defended blocking a bill aimed at preventing suicides among military veterans, but the bill's author said Coburn's objections were "unfathomable.”

Coburn, R-Muskogee, placed a "hold” on the bill before Congress left for its August break, preventing it from passing under a process called unanimous consent.

In a speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, Coburn outlined numerous objections to the bill:

•He said it would duplicate efforts already being undertaken by the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify mental illness and counsel veterans who might be suicidal.

•He said the bill also mandates mental health screening for all veterans receiving care, despite the condition for which they're seeking treatment.

•He said the bill would mandate "tracking” veterans who have received mental health services. "That violates their own civil liberties,” he said.

In an open letter authored by Coburn on Wednesday, he said Veterans Affairs in 1999 gave private medical records to the U.S. Justice Department to prohibit those with mental health concerns from buying guns.

The problem of suicide

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who authored the bill, said the legislation passed by a vote of 423-0 in the House and was unanimously supported by veterans groups. He said Senate committees held three different hearings on the bill and he called Coburn's objections "unfathomable” and "unfounded.”

In a speech on the Senate floor, Harkin challenged Coburn's assertion that the bill would duplicate efforts at the Veterans Affairs Department. He said the department had developed some initiatives but had not implemented them.

Harkin said the bill would require the VA "to designate a suicide prevention counselor at each medical facility — no more foot-dragging.”

The suicide rate in the U.S. Army is at a 28-year high, Harkin said. The increase of veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan makes the need for the bill even more pressing, he said.

Coburn has placed holds on numerous bills since coming to the Senate in 2005.

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