Tuesday, May 6, 2008

VA official:' suicides not reflection of agency negligence"

VA official says veterans' suicides not reflection of agency negligence

By Bob Brewin May 5, 2008 Suicides among veterans of wars overseas occur "just like cancer occurs," and are not an indication of negligence by Veterans Affairs Department mental health care providers, a top VA official has argued in a lawsuit filed by two veterans groups. The official said he does not know how well VA hospitals are complying with a directive to provide 24-hour referrals to veterans with mental health problems.

Last year, two groups, Veterans for Common Sense and Veterans United for Truth, filed suit in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, charging that VA had failed to make mental health services immediately and widely available to returning veterans. Testimony in the non-jury trial ended last week.

Documents filed in the case revealed that the Justice Department tried to have the lawsuit thrown out on the grounds that language in the department's appropriations bills and prior case law "specifically and substantially limits VA's obligation to provide care ... [and] creates no such expectation [that veterans are entitled to care] (emphasis and brackets added by Justice)."

Internal VA memos released at the trial in April disclosed that in February, the department knew it was facing 1,000 suicide attempts per month, which the veterans groups argued could have been avoided if VA had adhered to its 2004 Veterans Health Administration Mental Health Strategic Plan, which called for development of a "national, systemic program for suicide prevention."

A deposition by a VA medical center psychiatrist caring for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan backed up the veterans groups' assertion that the department had not done enough to provide adequate mental health care for all veterans.

Dr. Marcus Nemuth, medical director of Psychiatry Emergency Service for VA's Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, which operates three hospitals, said in his deposition on March 25 that he expected a high volume of post-traumatic stress disorder cases among veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. He said he was concerned with both with the quantity and quality of care provided to those veterans.

Nemuth said during the past year he had seen such a growth in the caseload of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans seeking psychiatric emergency help at the Seattle VA hospital that he concluded the department faced a "tsunami of medical need."
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