V.A. Slammed Over Suicide Epidemic

generic, Veterans Affairs seal, AP/file
AP / file
This story was written by CBS News associate producer Ariel Bashi and producer Pat Milton for cbsnews.com.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chair Bob Filner D-Calif. charged the VA's top mental health official of being more concerned with conducting a public relations battle on the rising rates of veteran suicides than dealing effectively with the "epidemic" life or death issue.

Filner rebuked the VA's mental health director, Dr. Ira Katz and Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake for not only ineffectively responding to the growing rates of military suicides but for covering up any attempt to shed light on the problem.

"This is a matter of life and death,'' Filner said. When the cover-up falls apart, you admit a little bit of a problem and underplay it.''

The two officials vehemently denied a cover-up. They testified before the committee that there are constant discussions at the Department of Veterans Affairs on how to deal with suicide and other mental health issues. Furthermore, veterans are constantly being reached out to, the officials argued.

One focus of the hearing was a series of internal Veteran Affairs emails disclosed during a trial two weeks ago in San Francisco on a lawsuit brought by two veterans groups seeking to have a court order the agency to improve its mental health care. The emails appear to show a concerted effort by the agency to hide attempted suicide data from the public and specifically from CBS News who was conducting its own investigation into military suicide.

In one e-mail titled "Not for the CBS News Interview Request" sent by Katz to a VA spokesman, Katz begins by writing "Shh!" as in keep this quiet.

When asked by Filner about what he meant by "Shh!", Dr. Katz said that it was "very unfortunate" and that he "deeply regretted it.''

The email claims that 12,000 veterans a year attempt suicide while under department treatment. "Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" Katz asks in the email.

The hearing opened with Chairman Filner showing two CBS News reports from April 21st and 25th of this year, by Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian detailing the VA's reluctance to provide information about veteran suicide.

CBS News first reported on the epidemic of suicide in the VA in November 2007, finding that over 6,000 veterans killed themselves in 2005 alone. That averages out to more than 120 per week. Katz immediately dismissed our report at a December 12th committee hearing, saying CBS's numbers were not "an accurate reflection of the rates".

But an email sent three later days later by Katz seemingly contradicts his criticism of CBS's numbers. In it, he acknowledged that 18 veterans kill themselves everyday-even more than the 6,256 suicides a year first reported by CBS.

"We should all be angry at what's gone on here, what looks like posturing before this committee," Filner said. "If the testimony that Dr. Katz gave was wrong...why weren't we notified?"

In commenting on the hearing today White House Spokeswoman Dana Perino said "President Bush is very concerned about the mental health of our veterans and doing all we can to make sure they get the care they need."

By Ariel Bashi