Last month, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs heard emotional stories from family members of soldiers and veterans who lost their lives to suicide as a result of what the families maintain is inadequate mental health care provided by the Veterans Health Administration.
The House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Committee listens to the sentiments of parents of veterans and service members who died by suicide.
“We have held a full series of oversight hearings over the last several weeks to evaluate the systemic access and integrity failures that have consumed the VA health care system,” said Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the committee’s chair, at the hearing’s start. “Perhaps none of these hearings have presented the all-too-human face of the VA’s failure so much as today’s hearings will.”
Three families and nine retired military personnel testified before the committee about the barriers that veterans of the U.S. Armed Services face in accessing effective mental health care. Veterans Administration (VA) data show that suicide rates increased by nearly 44 percent from 2009 to 2011 for veterans aged 29 and under who have used the VA health system. Some parents of those soldiers were not surprised to learn of this finding.
“Daniel made his first attempt to gain access to the Veterans Administration’s health system. . .and he was turned away,” testified Jean Somers, mother of Daniel Somers, 30, a former Army National Guard sergeant who died by suicide. Somers, along with her husband, Howard, told committee members that their son was finally admitted to the VA for psychiatric evaluation four months after his initial attempt; however, the VA was extremely slow in following up with other appointments—forcing Daniel to rely on the “limited” private insurance of his wife to access mental health treatment. His need for consistent mental health care services was finally met by the VA system two years later, after symptoms of his conditions—posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury—had worsened considerably. Daniel took his own life June 10, 2013.
Military personnel and parents of soldiers who took their lives discuss failures of the Veterans Health Administration.
Susan Selke, mother of former Marine Sgt. Clay Hunt, 28, who lost his life to suicide in 2011, said that her son was prescribed a brand-name antidepressant by a physician within the VA system. The drug worked well, but he was forced to switch to a different drug because no generic equivalent of the original, and effective, antidepressant was available in the VA’s national drug formulary.
Army Sgt. Josh Renschler, who was being treated for anxiety and other medical conditions resulting from a mortar blast in Iraq, raised another cost-related issue, saying that he was receiving excellent care through an integrative health initiative until VA “medical center leadership concluded that. . . [it] was too costly.”
Other topics discussed were lack of an adequate number of available mental health professionals, problems with securing adequate disability benefits, and ineffective communication between the VA and the Department of Defense as it concerns veterans’ health records.
After three hours of enduring an emotional and often painful hearing, Selke told Psychiatric News, “I think that today’s hearings went well. I was very pleased at the level of interest, and hopefully some major responses are under way.”
Later that afternoon, Selke, along with her husband, Richard, and Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), an Iraq war veteran, announced the introduction of the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, a bill that would address VA “pharmaceutical treatment practices” and provide suicide-awareness education for veterans and educational loan assistance to those seeking a career in mental health care at the VA. ■