Federal and local officials are investigating the recent deaths of five men who were being cared for in residential rehabilitation programs or emergency housing by the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center.
The men, who died between November and February, had substance abuse problems as well as other medical issues, said Dr. Dean Norman, chief of staff for the Greater Los Angeles VA system. All but one were believed to have died of drug overdoses, and in one case the drugs apparently involved had been prescribed by VA staff.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the hospital itself and the Los Angeles County coroner’s office are reviewing the deaths, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.
The hospital already has stepped up security and included more random urine tests, increased staffing on weekend nights and room checks for drugs.
Three of those who died, including one believed to have overdosed on heroin, were among about 200 veterans living at the hospital’s residential treatment facility.
The other two, both believed to have overdosed on illegal drugs, died at the Haven, an emergency housing program run by the Salvation Army. A VA program takes homeless veterans to such shelters as a step toward getting them into recovery programs, Norman said.
One of the five served in Iraq: Marine Corps veteran Justin Bailey, 27, who checked himself into the VA hospital after Thanksgiving because of his addiction to prescription and street drugs.
Bailey, who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a groin injury, was found dead in his room Jan. 26, a day after he got prescriptions filled for methadone and other drugs. Despite his drug history, he had been allowed to administer the drugs himself.
‘They gave him the bullet’
“My son had made a decision to get help, and they didn’t help him. They gave him the bullet,” Gulf War veteran Tony Bailey, 47, of Las Vegas told the Times.
The other deaths under investigation are of Vietnam-era veterans in their late 40s and 50s, Norman said.
The deaths come amid rising concern about the ability of military and VA hospitals to treat the influx of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, other mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.
An Army-funded study recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that almost one in five combat veterans returning from Iraq suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which increases the risk of substance abuse.
About 3,000 Iraq war vets are being treated through the Los Angeles area’s VA system.