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Veteran suicides called 'horrible human costs' of VA dysfunction

Retired Army Sgt. Josh Renschler wipes tears from his eyes as witnesses testify before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, July 10, 2014, about loved ones who served in the military and committed suicide after suffering from PTSD or other war-related maladies.

WASHINGTON — Iraq War veteran Daniel Somers tried desperately to get VA mental health care for years before committing suicide last summer.

Despite his diagnosed post-traumatic stress and brain injury, Howard and Jean Somers told House lawmakers Thursday, again and again their son was met with “uncaring, insensitive and adversarial” staff in the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is mired in a nationwide scandal over deep dysfunction and records manipulation in its health care system.

The couple and other family members of veterans who have recently taken their own lives testified Thursday before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on the shortcomings of the VA and its suicide prevention efforts. The stories of tragedy came as Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., prepared to introduce new legislation aimed at fixing the problems.

A bill set to be unveiled by Miller and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American would require:

  • Review of discharges for PTSD and traumatic brain injury
  • Mental health services in VA networks to be listed on centralized websites
  • New efforts to recruit VA psychiatrists
  • Annual outside reviews of mental health care and suicide prevention programs
  • A Government Accountability Office report on the transition of care for PTSD and TBI between active service and the VA

The proposal comes on the heels of a major reform effort under way in Congress that has been spearheaded by Miller and senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and John McCain, R-Ariz. So far, it is aimed at expanding access to general care, but progress has been held up by concerns over an estimated $50-billion annual price tag.

The stories of suicides that could have been averted with better care are part of the “horrible human costs of VA dysfunction,” said Miller, whose committee has also held hearings on patient scheduling abuses and widespread department employee bonuses despite access problems throughout the health care system.

Somers, an Army sergeant who did four combat tours as a Humvee turret gunner, once went to a VA hospital emergency room in Phoenix in the grip of a panic attack and was coldly turned away, Howard Somers testified during the committee probe into department suicide prevention.

“The fact is he went into the corner, he laid down on the floor and he was crying. There was no effort made to see if he could be admitted to another facility,” Somers said. “He was told, ‘You can stay there and when you feel better, you can drive yourself home.’”

A series of similar experiences just became too overwhelming and finally led Daniel Somers to collapse “under the weight of his own despair,” his parents said.

Suicide has become an epidemic among those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — an estimated 22 commit suicide each day — but the testimony before the House pointed to a mental health treatment system that has some of the same general treatment problems uncovered in the past two months at hundreds of VA hospital and clinics across the country.

Tens of thousands of veterans at over 700 facilities in the United States wait months for care and VA staff often manipulated records to cover up the delayed treatment, a series of audits have shown.

Veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder often wait until a crisis point just to approach VA hospitals in hopes of eventually getting treatment, said Josh Renschler, an Army infantry sergeant who was medically retired after suffering a mortar blast in Iraq.

Those lucky enough to get an initial appointment within a couple of weeks are often then scheduled for another assessment — a de facto “second intake process” — that can require months more waiting, said Renschler, who now works with a nonprofit group in Washington state that assists servicemembers and veterans.

Once veterans do get into the VA health care and suicide prevention system, they are passed from office to office for disjointed treatment that is frustrating and inefficient at judging the full scope of a patient’s mental health problems, he said during testimony.

“No one’s getting the full picture, so it’s likely that nobody is going to see that my life is spinning out of control,” Renschler said.

At a Washington state VA facility, the department tried an interdisciplinary approach as part of a pilot program, he said. The program brought together a spectrum of VA mental health providers into a shared office and brought down waits for care, but it was discontinued due to high costs and a lack of funding.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, who sits on the committee, said he wanted to re-examine the approach as a potential solution to problems with suicide prevention.

The tragic stories of suicide victims should be a powerful incentive to push through some type of reform, O’Rourke said.

“I hope it will force us and this administration and this country,” he said, “to treat this issue with the respect that it deserves.”

tritten.travis@stripes.com
Twitter: @Travis_Tritten

 

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