WASHINGTON — The Veterans Administration has lied about the number of veterans who've attempted suicide, a senator charged Wednesday, citing internal e-mails that put the number at 12,000 a year when the department was publicly saying it was fewer than 800.
"The suicide rate is a red-alarm bell to all of us," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray also said that the VA's mental health programs are being overwhelmed by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, even as the department tries to downplay the situation.
"We are not your enemy, we are your support team, and unless we get accurate information we can't be there to do our jobs," Murray told Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Gordon Mansfield during the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
Mansfield told Murray and the other senators that he didn't think the VA had deliberately tried to mislead Congress or the public.
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Murray remained skeptical, however, saying that the VA has demonstrated a pattern of misleading Congress about the increasing number of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and are now seeking help and straining Defense Department and VA facilities and programs.
Murray said she's spoken with VA Secretary James Peake and demanded that he fire the man in charge of the department's mental health programs, Dr. Ira Katz. The senator said Peake has yet to respond to her request.
"I used to teach preschool, and when you bring up a 3-year-old and tell them they have to stop lying, they understand the consequences," Murray said. "The VA doesn't. They need to stop hiding the fact this war is costing us in so many ways."
The existence of the e-mails, uncovered as part of a class-action lawsuit filed against the VA in San Francisco, was first reported by CBS News on Monday.
"Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities," Katz wrote in a Feb. 13 e-mail to Ev Chasen, the department's communication director. "Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?"
Chasen responded: "I think this is something we should discuss among ourselves, before issuing a press release. Is the fact we are stopping them good news, or is the sheer number bad news? And is this more than we have ever seen before?"
CBS reported that the VA had provided it with data earlier that showed only 790 attempted suicides in all of 2007.
"How do we trust what you are saying when every time we turn around we find out that what you are saying publicly is different from what you are saying privately?" Murray asked Mansfield. "How can we trust what you are saying today?"
Mansfield responded that the situation was unfortunate and didn't "send the right message" to Congress or the public.
"I know Dr. Katz is a dedicated public servant," he said. "There isn't a lot the VA should be keeping secret."
Murray pointed to a RAND Corp. study released last week that found that 320,000 troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from traumatic brain injuries and 300,000 troops suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression.
Of those with PTSD or depression, Murray said, only half have sought treatment, and only half of those have received treatment that was "minimally" adequate.
"I think we ought to be worried," Murray said, adding that, as with Vietnam-era vets, some of the more violent symptoms might not show up for 50 years.
"They can be walking time bombs for decades," Murray said. "I hope everyone in the VA understands this."
Mansfield said the VA is spending $3 billion on mental health programs this fiscal year and has 17,000 mental health workers.
"We want to make sure we take care of these individuals," he said.