An alleged cover-up of the rising number of U.S. military veteran suicides has led two Democratic senators to demand the resignation of the chief mental health official of the Veterans Affairs Department.
Sens. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii and Patty Murray of Washington state said Tuesday that Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's mental health director, withheld crucial information on the true suicide risk among veterans.
"Dr. Katz's irresponsible actions have been a disservice to our veterans, and it is time for him to go," said Murray, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. "The No. 1 priority of the VA should be caring for our veterans, not covering up the truth."
Akaka, the committee's chairman, said in a letter to the VA that Katz's "personal conduct and professional judgment" had been called into question by his response to veteran suicides. Veterans, and the VA itself, "would be best served by his immediate resignation," Akaka said.
A number of Democratic senators said they were appalled at e-mails showing Katz and other VA officials apparently trying to conceal the number of suicides by veterans. An e-mail message from Katz disclosed this week as part of a lawsuit that went to trial in San Francisco starts with "Shh!" and claims 12,000 veterans a year attempt suicide while under department treatment.
"Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the e-mail asks.
Another e-mail said an average of 18 war veterans kill themselves each day — and five of them are under VA care when they commit suicide. Statistics provided earlier this year by the VA showed that 790 veterans under VA care attempted suicide in 2007.
A VA spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.
Two veterans groups last year filed the class-action lawsuit against a sprawling VA system that handled a record 838,000 claims last year. A government lawyer on Monday urged a judge to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the agency runs a "world class" medical care system.