VA official denies cover-up of veteran suicides
Associated Press
Published: Saturday April 26, 2008

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) A top-ranking official at the Department of Veterans Affairs defends the agency's treatment of disabled veterans and denies the agency has tried to cover up the number of veterans committing suicide.

Dr. Michael Kussman, a department undersecretary for health, testified during a trial in San Francisco federal court that will determine whether the VA is shirking its duty to provide adequate mental health care and other medical services to millions of veterans.

The two veterans groups suing the VA want U.S. District Court Judge Samuel Conti to order the agency to dramatically improve how fast it processes applications and how it delivers mental health care, especially when it comes to preventing suicides and treating post-traumatic stress disorder.

The groups contend that veteran suicides are rising at alarming rates in large part because of VA failures. In court, plaintiffs' lawyer Arturo Gonzalez clashed Thursday with Kussman over how to compile and report the suicide rates.

For instance, VA Secretary James Peake told Congress in a Feb. 5 letter that 144 combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide between October 2001 and December 2005.

But Gonzalez produced internal VA e-mails that contended that 18 veterans a day were committing suicide. Kussman countered that the figure, provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, included all 26 million veterans in the country, including aging Vietnam veterans who are reporting an increased number of health problems.

Kussman said Thursday that suicide prevention was a VA priority and that the agency instituted new measures in the past 18 months, including training its workers to identify suicidal patients and establishing a 24-hour suicide hot line for veterans.

Court documents given to the judge by Gonzalez showed that 2,508 veterans called the hot line in March, the busiest month so far.

"People are using it," Kussman said. "It's a good thing."

Gonzalez also asked Kussman to explain several e-mail chains among agency officials that discussed an unwillingness to share suicide statistics with CBS News, which was preparing a story on the subject.

"I don't want to give CBS any more numbers on veterans suicides or attempts than they already have it will only lead to more questions," wrote Everett A. Chasen, chief communications officer in a March 10 e-mail to several VA officials.

On Monday, the first day of trial, an e-mail message written in December by Dr. Ira Katz, the agency's mental health director, was given as evidence. It alerted Kussman and others that 12,000 veterans under VA care were attempting suicide a year.

"Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the e-mail asks.

Katz also reported that of the average of 18 military veterans who kill themselves each day, four to five of them are under VA care when it happens.

Three Democratic senators, including Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, called for Katz's dismissal this week.

"I disagree with the premise that there was some effort to cover something up," Kussman testified Thursday. "We don't obfuscate."

Instead, Kussman said, there's concern about how suicide rates are compiled among the nation's 26 million veterans.

"It's been hard to track exactly," said Kussman, who noted that only 5.7 million veterans are under VA care.

The trial is scheduled to last another week; there was no testimony Friday. The judge is hearing the case without a jury.

(This version CORRECTS that Sen. Akaka is from Hawaii, not Alaska.)