Yesterday marked the opening day of a class action lawsuit brought by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans against the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), arguing “that failure to provide care is manifesting itself in an epidemic of suicides” among veterans. The VA denies the charges, pointing to increased resources devoted to mental health.
Today, CBS News reports that the VA apparently concealed veteran suicide statistics, and fed the news organization faulty data for a story on the issue. The VA told CBS that there were 790 attempted suicides in all of 2007. Yet shortly after, the VA’s head of Mental Health, Dr. Ira Katz, wrote in an e-mail to the VA’s top media adviser that there were “about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities.”
The e-mail exchange shows that the VA hoped to keep the statistics out of CBS’s hands:
From: Katz, Ira R.
Sent: Wednesday, February 13, 2008 11:27 AM
To: Chasen, Ev
Subject: FW: Not for the CBS News Interview Request
Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see at our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?
From: Chasen, Ev
Sent: Wednesday, February 13, 2008 11:40 AM
To: Katz, Ira R.
I think this is something we should discuss among ourselves, before issuing a release. Is the fact that we’re stooping them good news, or is the sheer number bad news? […]
Suicide among veterans — even those who seek help from the VA — continues to be a huge problem. Just last week, the VA Medical Center in Dallas, TX, officially closed its psychiatric ward after a fourth veteran this year took his own life. Often veterans cannot get help right away: According to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, “The average wait-time for a disability claim” — including mental health problems — “is 183 days, or about six months.”
Katz had attacked CBS last November, after a report exposed 6,200 veteran suicides in 2005. Katz claimed that the number “is not, in fact, an accurate reflection of the rate.” Yet just three days later, he sent an e-mail acknowledging that there are “about 18 suicides per day among America’s 25 million veterans,” a fact that “is supported by the CBS numbers.”