August 26, 2008 – The U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs and Sen. John Cornyn on Monday praised administrators at the Dallas VA Medical Center for what they called an “aggressive response” to four suicides by mentally ill patients earlier this year.
Hospital administrators closed the psychiatric ward for 45 days, solicited input from two panels of experts and retrofitted the 68-year-old wing to increase patient safety.
“The most important thing is what you do when you realize you have a problem,” said Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake. “The lessons learned here will be translated throughout the [Veterans Affairs] system.”
The VA Office of Medical Inspector and a team from the VA Office of Mental Health Services evaluated the psychiatric unit less than a month after it was closed in April. Their reports included a recommendation to remove some suicide risks – such as metal trash cans, linen hampers and geriatric chairs in the showers – but did not criticize the care veterans received.
Veterans Chris Demopolis and Pat Ahrens committed suicide in January, days after being released from the government hospital on Lancaster Road in southeast Oak Cliff. A few months later, two other patients hanged themselves in the 51-bed unit.
Within days, administrators stopped accepting new patients, transferring veterans to government and private hospitals in Dallas.
Doctors’ quick response and candor earned kudos from Mr. Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“It is a testimony to the responsiveness of the VA that they have taken this seriously and they have been open with the press and public,” said Mr. Cornyn, who added, “The staff at the Dallas VA has demonstrated they are committed to making significant improvements to the facility and the level of care provided. I was pleased to see progress under way and will continue to closely monitor these enhancements.”