The chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is calling for a nationwide stand down and a full review of all Veterans Affairs suicide prevention policies in light of an inspector general report criticizing local hospital leadership errors ahead of a patient death in Florida earlier this year.
Within the next two weeks, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., wants the VA see non-essential work at the medical centers halt for a day and staff focus on those issues instead “so every leadership executive, administrator, nurse, doctor, and employee across VA understands how to identify veterans in crisis and get them the help they need.” He said the results of Thursday’s investigation shows more needs to be done immediately.
“We cannot keep delaying action,” he said in a statement. “Americans must know that key policies to keep veterans safe are in place, that VA will enforce them, and trust that senior VA leadership will be held accountable.”
On Thursday, the VA inspector general reported a series of leadership failures at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center leading up to a patient suicide in a secure psychiatric ward in March. The errors included a lack of security cameras, ignored warnings about facility safety, and inadequate monitoring of patients.
In response, VA leadership in Washington, D.C. issued a statement saying that improvements have been made at the facility in recent months.
“We continue to reinforce education to all staff and maintain suicide prevention as a priority,” the statement said. “As part of our ongoing structural improvement plan, we continue to make upgrades to all areas of the hospital to provide the safest environment for our patients, visitors and staff.”
Nearly 30 veterans have taken their own lives on VA medical campuses in the last two years, a figure that has prompted increased scrutiny from lawmakers on staff response and monitoring policies. VA officials have noted that the rate of on-campus suicides is down in recent years as they have ramped up intervention training for front-line personnel like police and receptionists.
Next week, VA and Department of Defense officials are scheduled to conduct their biennial suicide prevention conference in Nashville, Tenn., to focus on assistance for veterans and servicemembers facing mental health issues. About 20 veterans a day nationwide die by suicide, according to the latest department figures.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has repeatedly stated that preventing veterans suicide remains his department’s top clinical priority, but Democratic lawmakers in Congress (including Takano) in recent months have pressed officials on whether enough is being done to address the problem.
“With each suicide, it becomes more clear our country is not doing enough,” Takano said in his statement. “Repeatedly, Congress has aimed to bolster VA’s veteran suicide prevention efforts through increased funding, accountability, and oversight. Yet, it is clear VA must do more. We need new solutions.”
VA officials did not respond to questions regarding Takano’s stand-down plan.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.