Democrats press VA on suicide rate
Stars and Stripes May 7, 2008
WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Tuesday angrily accused top Veterans Affairs officials of lying about suicide trends, covering up negative data and ignoring mounting deaths among former servicemembers.
“This is not a bureaucratic situation with numbers. This is life or death,” said House Veterans Affairs Committee chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif. “I think there is clear evidence of a cover-up, and I think there is criminal negligence here.”
VA officials denied the charges, saying they’re working to prevent veterans’ suicides and insisting the problem is still not well understood.
Last week several Democratic senators called for the resignation of VA Mental Health Director Ira Katz after e-mails surfaced showing internal discussions over suicide rates and how best to make them public.
In December, a CBS news report showed suicide rates among veterans in 2004 and 2005 was significantly above national averages; the rate was three times higher among the youngest separated servicemembers.
In a hearing before Filner’s committee days later, Katz and VA officials disputed how those numbers were collected and how valid the report’s assumptions were.
But e-mails made public last month show he and other researchers had more confidence in those figures than first revealed, and uncovered additional data supporting CBS’ claims over the following weeks.
Researchers found about 1,000 suicide attempts among veterans each month, and an overall suicide rate among males using VA facilities of 37.2 per 100,000 patients, a rate about 1.6 times the national average.
Katz told the committee Tuesday that while the tone of the internal messages was “unfortunate” — one note’s subject line reads “Shh!” and asks “Is this something we should carefully address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?” — the data was still preliminary and unreliable.
VA Secretary James Peake said officials have been working on ways to deal with the higher suicide rate, including establishing a new task force on the issue, but that much of the existing data is simply too suspect to project trends and responses.
“Far from hiding this issue, we are more public about it than any agency I know,” he told the committee.
But Filner and other Democrats at the hearing blasted the men for not better informing Congress about the problems, not reaching out to other government agencies for assistance, and taking a more active role in suicide prevention before the CBS reports.
“It sounds to me like you’re saying everything is fine and under control yet again,” Filner said. “You don’t acknowledge any of your mistakes. I don’t care what your figures show you; we’re not doing the job.”
Committee ranking member Rep. Stephen Buyer, R-Ind., echoed his colleague’s concerns about the suicide rate but said VA officials are clearly moving on the issue, disputing that the internal messages revealed any conspiracy.
For information on suicide prevention, visit www.mentalhealth.va.gov