Editorial Column: VA Cover-Up of Suicide Epidemic

The Columbian (Washington)

April 25, 2008 – It almost always happens this way, doesn’t it? Some government official or agency gets mired in a scandal or foul-up and then turns cartwheels trying to hide the news. Ultimately, the attempted cover-up gets them in more trouble than the initial problem itself. (See: Richard M. Nixon and Watergate cover-up vs. Watergate burglary, 1972-1974.)

This pathetic dynamic is at play again this week with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which misled Congress about the suicide rate of U.S. troops who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Appropriately, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, and committee chairman Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, have called for the resignation of Ira Katz, the VA’s director of mental health.

As the result of a class-action suit in San Francisco against the VA, internal VA e-mails surfaced this week showing Katz and others attempting to hide the magnitude of the veterans’ suicide problem.

This e-mail, dated Feb. 13 this year from Katz to VA Communications Director Ev Chasen, came in connection with a request by CBS News for an interview: “Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?”

Chasen answered: “I think this is something we should discuss among ourselves, before issuing a release.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who also has been looking into the suicide issue, called the cover-up “completely outrageous” and said the VA had previously reported that only 790 veterans under VA care had attempted suicide since 2007.

On April 3, Murray, who has long been looking out for veterans in numerous ways, was given the “Silver Helmet Award” by AMVETs for her work to help veterans in Washington and across the country. It was well deserved.

It would be nice if Murray and others in Congress could concentrate on dealing with veteran-related problems without having first to fight their way through cover-ups of those problems.

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