WASHINGTON, May 6, 2008 -- Lawmakers are questioning whether the Department of Veterans Affairs has been accurately reporting the number of veterans who commit suicide or if it's covering up the data.
At a hearing held by the House Veterans' Committee today, chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., said he thought there was "criminal negligence" and "clear evidence of a bureaucratic coverup" in the VA's handling of mental health findings.
"If you have a thousand, and you said it could be more, of suicide attempts per month, we've got some real difficult issues," Filner said to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. James Peake.
But most of the committee's time was spent on a report aired by CBS News last year that said the VA was under-reporting the magnitude of suicides among veterans by manipulating the data.
Filner said there was clear evidence of a bureaucratic cover-up and asked the VA secretary if anyone involved would lose their job because of it.
"I think that we owe appropriate, validated numbers to this committee," Peake said. "We're absolutely committed to try to do the right thing by all of our service members, our veterans, and not worry as much about whether this is a little above, or a little below, some national average."
Dr. Ira Katz, a VA mental health officer who came under fire at the hearing, said it was his recollection that CBS asked him for information, about attempts or completed suicides, from medical records.
During interrogation by committee members, Katz was asked why he questioned a CBS claim that 6,200 veterans had committed suicide in 2005.
Then, three days later, he wrote in an e-mail that there were about 18 suicides a day, or about 6,570 per year, among America's veterans.
Asked today if he intentionally withheld information from CBS, Katz responded that he was "concerned about their findings with respect to very young veterans, not the entire veterans population.
"If you're interested in whether there's an epidemic related to the war, you would also want to see what the rates were before the war," Katz said. "CBS never addressed that. I have concerns about the CBS report."
Also testifying today was Stephen Rathbun, an associate professor of biostatistics at the University of Georgia, who analyzed the data used in the CBS report.
Rathbun told the committee he was confident of the results of his analysis, though he also said that CBS asked him to destroy the data once his analysis was completed, and that the work was not peer reviewed. CBS did not pay him for the work, he said.