PRESCRIPTIONS FOR DEATH: New Investigation Reveals VA Continues Prescribing Drugs That Cause Suicides

PRESCRIPTIONS FOR DEATH: New Investigation Reveals VA Continues Prescribing Drugs That Cause Suicides

GAO report says VA prescription medication policies are out of control, suicide tracking efforts are dismal, and mental health programs are still inadequate to meet veterans need for care

by Chuck Goudie
ABC News Chicago, June 10, 2015

Click here for video report from ABC Chicago

CHICAGO (WLS) — Two weeks after the I-Team questioned whether prescription cocktails were contributing to the sky-high number of veterans’ suicides, the Dept. of Veterans Affairs has been vilified about that in a government study.

The Government Accountability Office investigation found that the Veterans Administration is failing to follow its own guidelines in the treatment of veterans with mental illness who may be at risk of killing themselves. This conclusion comes as no surprise to the family of Cole Van Dorn, a marine veteran from suburban Chicago who was found dead in April.

At Arlington National Cemetery last month, Van Dorn was laid to rest even though the cause of his death still isn’t known. What Van Dorn’s father says is known is that the 29-year-old Marine sniper had been prescribed a cocktail of up to 20 antidepressants to deal with what haunted him from nine years of service and numerous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“If he wasn’t on all those medications, would he be alive today?” asked ABC7’s Chuck Goudie.

“I definitely believe so,” said Tom Van Dorn. “I don’t know how anyone could be put on a dozen to 20 to 14 meds at the same time and come out normal.”

Wednesday’s blistering report from the GAO indicates that Van Dorn’s case may be typical. In 26 of the 30 random veterans who were sampled, their mental health care deviated from the VA’s norm, and most were not properly assessed after their antidepressant meds began.

The report found that the VA has no system-wide process in place to assess veterans on antidepressants and that the VA’s suicide data is often incomplete and inaccurate, which inhibits suicide prevention efforts.

A congressional hearing Wednesday in Washington focused on prescription mismanagement and the risk of veteran suicide.

“This work illustrates once again a continuing pattern of non-compliance with its own policies and established procedures, unclear guidance, inaccurate data and poor oversight,” said Randall Williamson, GAO.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Member Mike Coffman of Colorado said the VA isn’t even aware of how many veterans currently have major depression or whether they are receiving proper care. VA officials told the committee hearing that the medication problem is complex and that the veteran suicide rate is unacceptable.

Click here to read the sworn congressional testimony of VA executive Carolyn Clancy.

‘STAGGERING’: Suicide Rate Among Female Veterans Found Near Six Times Higher Than Non-Veterans

‘STAGGERING’: Suicide Rate Among Female Veterans Found Near Six Times Higher Than Non-Veterans

by Alan Zarembo
The Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2015

LOS ANGELES — New government research shows that female military veterans commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women, a startling finding that experts say poses disturbing questions about the backgrounds and experiences of women who serve in the armed forces.

Their suicide rate is so high that it approaches that of male veterans, a finding that surprised researchers because men generally are far more likely than women to commit suicide.

“It’s staggering,” said Dr. Matthew Miller, an epidemiologist and suicide expert at Northeastern University who was not involved in the research. “We have to come to grips with why the rates are so obscenely high.”

Though suicide has become a major issue for the military over the last decade, most research by the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department has focused on men, who account for more than 90% of the nation’s 22 million former troops. Little has been known about female veteran suicide.

The rates are highest among young veterans, the VA found in new research compiling 11 years of data. For women ages 18 to 29, veterans kill themselves at nearly 12 times the rate of nonveterans.

In every other age group, including women who served as far back as the 1950s, the veteran rates are between four and eight times higher, indicating that the causes extend far beyond the psychological effects of the recent wars.

The data include all 173,969 adult suicides — men and women, veterans and nonveterans — in 23 states between 2000 and 2010.

It is not clear what is driving the rates. VA researchers and experts who reviewed the data for The Times said there were myriad possibilities, including whether the military had disproportionately drawn women at higher suicide risk and whether sexual assault and other traumatic experiences while serving played a role.

Whatever the causes, the consistency across age groups suggests a long-standing pattern.

“We’ve been missing something that now we can see,” said Michael Schoenbaum, an epidemiologist and military suicide researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health who was not part of the work.

The 2011 death of 24-year-old Katie Lynn Cesena is one of a dozen cases The Times identified in Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Cesena’s death highlights two likely factors in the rates.

First, she had reported being raped by a fellow service member. The Pentagon has estimated that 10% of women in the military have been raped while serving and another 13% subject to unwanted sexual contact, a deep-rooted problem that has gained attention in recent years as more victims come forward.

The distress forced Cesena out of the Navy, said her mother, Laurie Reaves.

Read the rest of this story at the Los Angeles Times website.

TURNED AWAY: Veterans Most at Risk of Suicide Are Least Able to Get VA Care

TURNED AWAY: Veterans Most at Risk of Suicide Are Least Able to Get VA Care

More than 136,000 sick and wounded veterans of the post-9/11 generation locked out of VA medical care intentionally

by Bradford Adams
Swords for Plowshares, May 27, 2015

SAN FRANCISCO — Despite commitments by the VA, Congress and White House to address veteran suicide, the VA specifically denies life-saving services to those who are most at-risk—veterans with a military discharge under less than honorable conditions. A recent study found that the suicide rate is more than double among this group of former servicemembers. Veteran suicide will remain an epidemic unless we finally provide these veterans with all the mental health care at our disposal. The VA is holding back in this fight and it must stop.

VA officials falsely claim that their hands are tied by Congress. It’s true that Congress said some servicemembers may have been so dishonorable that they should not be eligible for veteran services. But the VA is authorized to decide who should be excluded, based on rules it wrote. The VA excludes the majority of these veterans from receiving full mental health care. For post-9/11 vets, the VA has only evaluated 10% of these cases and it turned away 65% of the ones they did evaluate. This means that 136,000 people who signed up to serve our country, some of whom deployed to combat zones and sustained life-long disabilities while serving, are being denied VA medical care. They are among those men and women who are most in need of the care.

I served the in the U.S. Army and deployed to Afghanistan. When I returned home, I became an attorney at a nonprofit that helps veterans access the care they need. A lot of the people I work with have less than honorable discharges or “bad paper.” I know firsthand that PTSD and service-related mental health conditions are often the reason for the bad paper discharge in the first place. One infantryman I work with saw intense combat in the First Gulf War, attempted suicide while still in service, and then received bad paper when he left to seek care and support from his family. He was denied VA medical care and then spent a decade living on the streets, with a series of suicide attempts and psychiatric hospitalizations on his record. The misconduct that led to the discharge was a symptom of his PTSD, and now the VA is using that misconduct as a reason to deny him care for that very condition. This isn’t right.

My experience is that many people who had developed mental health conditions in service received bad paper discharges, and research backs this up. A 2005 study showed that Marines who deployed to combat and who received a PTSD diagnosis were 11 times more likely to receive a bad discharge. And the 2010 Army policy document on suicide prevention advises commanders to respond to at-risk behavior with stricter discipline, including separation from the service. The large majority of those people will probably never be recognized by the VA as veterans, and never receive extended veteran benefits.

The VA can fix this problem. The VA can presume that the veteran’s service was honorable if a mental health condition arose during military service which would make them eligible for VA benefits. Instead of forcing these veterans to wait months while they evaluate their case, they have the authority to grant them tentative access to VA care and services. These are easy fixes and the VA does not need any special authority to make these changes.

If the VA refuses to make these changes on its own, Congress should mandate it. Something happened that made these servicemembers unable to continue serving in the military. But they signed up and they served, at a time when most of us did not do so, and there is no reason that we should not serve them now.

Click here to read this story at the Swords to Plowshares website