WASHINGTON — Two Democratic senators have called for the chief mental health official of the Veterans Affairs Department to resign, saying he tried to cover up the rising number of veteran suicides.
Sens. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Patty Murray of Washington state said Tuesday that Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's mental health director, withheld crucial information on the true suicide risk among veterans.
"Dr. Katz's irresponsible actions have been a disservice to our veterans, and it is time for him to go," said Murray, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "The No. 1 priority of the VA should be caring for our veterans, not covering up the truth."
Akaka, the committee's chairman, said in a letter to the VA that Katz's "personal conduct and professional judgment" had been called into question by his response to veteran suicides.
Veterans, and the VA itself, "would be best served by his immediate resignation," Akaka said.
A number of Democratic senators said they were appalled at e-mails showing Katz and other VA officials apparently trying to conceal the number of suicides by veterans. An e-mail message from Katz disclosed this week as part of a lawsuit that went to trial in San Francisco starts with "Shh!" and claims 12,000 veterans a year attempt suicide while under department treatment.
"Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the e-mail asks.
A VA spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.
Demands for better tracking of suicides
Another e-mail said an average of 18 war veterans kill themselves each day — and five of them are under VA care when they commit suicide.
"It is completely outrageous that the federal agency charged with helping veterans would instead cover up the hard truth — that more and more Americans coming home after bravely fighting for their country are suffering from mental illnesses and in the most tragic circumstances, committing suicide," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. "Anyone at the VA who is involved in this cover-up should be removed immediately."
Harkin, Murray and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., introduced legislation Tuesday calling on the VA to track how many veterans commit suicide each year. Currently, VA facilities record the number of suicides and attempted suicides in VA facilities — but do not record how many veterans overall take their own lives. The agency, however, is reluctant to disclose specific numbers, veterans advocates complain.
The new bill would require the VA to report to Congress within 180 days the number of veterans who have died by suicide since Jan. 1, 1997, and continue reports annually. Harkin's office said statistics provided earlier this year by the VA showed that 790 veterans under VA care attempted suicide in 2007. That figure is contradicted by the e-mail revealed this week.
Two veterans groups last year filed the class-action lawsuit against a sprawling VA system that handled a record 838,000 claims last year. A government lawyer on Monday urged a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the agency runs a "world class" medical care system.
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