In the wake of a CBS News the Department of Veterans Affairs deliberately withheld critical information about the true suicide risk among veterans, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, today both called for the resignation of Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's top official for mental health.
Murray, a senior member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, says "Dr. Katz's irresponsible actions have been a disservice to our veterans and it is time for him to go." She continues, "The number one priority of the VA should be caring for our veterans, not covering up the truth."
Akaka, the Chairman of the Committee, sent a letter to the VA's Under Secretary for Health, Michael Kussman, expressing similar concerns about Dr. Katz.
For months, CBS News has been trying to obtain veteran suicide and attempted suicide data from the VA. Earlier this year, the agency provided CBS News with data that showed there were a total of 790 suicide attempts in all of 2007 by veterans who were under the VA's care.
On February 13, however, Katz sent an e-mail indicating the total number of attempts was much higher. The e-mail was addressed to his top media advisor Everett Chasen and entitled, "Not for the CBS News Interview Request."
Katz wrote: "Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilitates." He then asked "is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?"
In another e-mail message, Katz told the VA's Under Secretary for Health, Michael Kussman, that there are "about 18 suicides per day among America's 25 million veterans." This is a figure that the VA has never made public.
Yesterday, CBS News that the reason the numbers mentioned in his e-mails had not been made public was because the "results were available for only one or two months, and there were and still are questions about how consistent or reliable the findings would be."
In other development today, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., introduced legislation this afternoon requiring the VA to track veteran suicides. Harkin told CBS News that the e-mail controversy is what sparked the legislation. He said "anyone at the VA who is involved in this cover up should be removed immediately."
By Pia Malbran