Despite E-mails, VA Boss Denies Cover Up

Michael Kussman AP

CBS News investigative producer Pia Malbran wrote this story for CBSNews.com.
The head of health care at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) denied any wrong doing by the agency on Thursday as more internal emails surfaced showing VA officials discussed withholding suicide information from the public.

While on the stand in California federal court, where the VA is facing a lawsuit filed by veteran advocates who are demanding better health care, Dr. Michael Kussman, the VA's Under Secretary for Health, said, "I disagree with the premise that there was some effort to cover up something."

On March 10 of this year, Everett Chasen, the chief communications officer for the VA's Veterans Health Administration (VHA) sent an e-mail message to several top agency officials including Kussman. At the time, CBS News was preparing a report about attempted suicides among VA patients. Chasen wrote, "I don't want to give CBS any more numbers on veteran suicides or attempts than they already have - it will only lead to more questions."

In response, Kussman said he did not "recall" the message. He said, "Obviously I'm [copied] on the e-mail but I get [copied] on a huge number of e-mails everyday."

In another e-mail - dated December 15, 2007 - Dr. Ira Katz, who oversees mental health at the VA, informed Kussman that "there are 18 suicides per day" among all vets and "4-5 suicides per day" among those being treated by the VA. When asked by lawyers in court if these figures raised any concerns, Kussman said, "Any suicide is cause for concern." However, despite repeated requests by media and members of Congress, the VA has never made these figures publicly known.

Two other e-mails presented in court on Thursday show VA officials calling a CBS News investigative report on veteran suicides "defensible" with a methodology that "appears to be correct."

CBS News spent five months compiling nationwide suicide data based on state death records after the VA said they did not collect this kind of information. The report was broadcast last November and heavily criticized by VA officials.

Kussman was asked if the VA ever told Congressman Steve Buyer, R-Ind, who questioned the accuracy of the CBS News report, that the report was "defensible." Kussman said, "I don't know if that was specifically communicated to the congressman."

By Pia Malbran

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