VA under fire for mental health care and veteran suicides - FOX 35 News Orlando

VA under fire for mental health care and veteran suicides

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WASHINGTON -

The embattled Veterans Affairs health care system is under fire again -- this time for its failings when it comes to veteran suicides.

The fact is more troops are dying from suicide after coming home than those killed in combat.

On Thursday, veterans’ families called on Congress to do more to prevent others from dying. Howard Somers, testifying before the House Veterans Affairs Committee about his son's suicide, recalled the time Daniel went to a Veterans Affairs Hospital desperate for help. He told them he needed to be admitted.

"He was told by the mental health department they had no bed," recalled Somers.

There were no beds in the emergency room either.

"He went into the corner,” he said. “He laid on the floor. He was crying. There was no effort made to see if he could be admitted to another facility."

Instead, Daniel was told he could stay there until he felt better and then he could leave.

Daniel's story is all too familiar to many veterans, who fought on the battlefield and are now fighting a war back home at VA hospitals to get the mental health care they need. Too often veterans find themselves in crisis and turn to suicide.

The numbers, which have remained constant since 1999, are staggering. An average of 22 veterans take their own life every day. That is about 150 a week or about 8,000 a year.

For their families, they are not statistics, but men and women who served this country and deserve better treatment than the VA gives.

"What you have to do is try and make the system better, and right now, I think it's broken," said Rep. Paul Cook (R-CA), who is a veteran himself.

During the hearing on the VA's mental health system and suicide prevention, Chairman Jeff Miller (R-FL) questioned whether the VA can be trusted amid the scandal over excessive waits and falsified records.

"Would you bet your life that the information people are telling you is truthful?" he asked Maureen McCarthy, M.D., the deputy chief patient care services officer for the Veterans Health Administration.

"Sir, I would not," she answered.

The committee also heard firsthand about the difficulties facing veterans. There can be a myriad of doctors, spread throughout a vast hospital, all treating the same patient but not working together.

Sergeant Josh Renschler (Ret.) says it takes a team approach. He was part of one program specifically for post-9/11 veterans where all the doctors worked together on a patient's care, but it was terminated. Renschler, who suffers everyday with the effects of the mortar blast that broke his back and caused a traumatic brain injury, says he was told it was too costly.

"It doesn't make me feel like they're out there to help me,” he said. “They're out there to help themselves and keep the cost cheap, which is really disgusting way of treating veterans.”

After the hearing, Rep. Miller, flanked by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, stood before the U.S. Capitol to introduce the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act or SAV Act.

"People are not held accountable for the things that they do,” said Rep. Miller. “Things that may in fact harm or cause harm to a veteran.”

The legislation would improve access to mental health services, increase VA staff and provide oversight. It's named for Clay Hunt, a 28-year-old former U.S. Marine and Purple Heart recipient who took his life three years ago. His parents can't say what pushed him over the edge, but the VA didn't help.

“He was just exhausted by the process of trying to continue to get care," Susan Selke, Clay's mother told FOX 5.

Congress has passed laws to combat veteran suicides before, but weren't implemented. Now veterans groups tired of the rhetoric called for action.

"Our friends are dying,” said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and Founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “They are dying right now. America has to act. Our veterans have called out for help.”

Lawmakers are hoping to get the legislation passed before the August recess, which may be tough. There is no indication yet how much the changes called for the legislation will cost.

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