May 20, 2008 – The VA Medical Center in Dallas resumed psychiatric admissions Monday, six weeks after all but shutting down the ward because of a rash of suicides. The 51-bed psychiatric unit serves all of North Texas. The Fort Worth VA clinic handles outpatient care only.
Joe Dalpiaz, director of the North Texas medical system for the Veterans Affairs Department, ordered psychiatric admissions halted April 5 until outside experts could evaluate care.
The VA has been sending patients to a VA medical center in Waco and to area hospitals such as Parkland Memorial, Zale Lipshy, Timberlawn and Trinity Springs Pavilion, which is operated by the JPS Health Network in Fort Worth. VA officials were not available for comment Monday.
Two North Texas veterans committed suicide in January shortly after their release from the psychiatric unit. Then in early February, Air Force veteran Larry Johnson of Arlington committed suicide in the unit by using a tall-frame wheelchair to hang himself.
The last man to commit suicide hung himself in his hospital room in early April, the day before Dalpiaz’s decision to cease admissions. None of the veterans had served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Dr. Catherine Orsak, the hospital’s associate chief of staff for mental health, said last month that until this year there had not been an in-patient suicide in the 10 years she has worked at the hospital.
Two teams from VA headquarters in Washington, D.C. — the Office of Medical Inspector and the Office of Mental Health Services — visited the hospital in April; both have recommended changes to the unit.
Among the medical inspector’s recommendations: that the unit increase the amount of patient activity on nights and weekends; remove certain doors, metal trash cans and chairs in the showers; and re-evaluate the effectiveness of its suicide risk assessments.
The hospital is adding nurses to the emergency department, increasing the unit’s housekeeping staff, repositioning cameras and monitors and adding another suicide prevention coordinator.
In recent weeks, the VA has been accused of downplaying the number of attempted suicides at its facilities. Its chief mental health officer, Dr. Ira Katz, has been criticized by some members of Congress who believe that he provided them misleading information.
Katz sent an e-mail to the VA’s top communications officer — the subject line read “Shh!” — asking whether the agency should acknowledge that there were 1,000 attempted suicides a month at its facilities. Publicly, the VA said that there were fewer than 800 in all of 2007.