Alarmed by a new report that found gaps in the VA’s follow-up care of suicidal veterans discharged from Veterans Health Administration inpatient mental health facilities, U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy is asking the VA to “act as quickly as possible” to reduce the risk of suicide.
In a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki — prompted by a Wednesday news story about the VA Office of Inspector General’s report — Murphy said he had “deep concern” about the findings of deficiencies in follow-up care for veterans who are discharged from inpatient mental health facilities.
“As you know, suicide is now the leading cause of death among military personnel who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and as many as 22 veterans take their own lives every day,” Murphy wrote. “Given this stark reality, the fact that the VA is not monitoring veterans who are at a high risk of suicide is not acceptable.”
Murphy requested that the VA provide him with a comprehensive overview of the improvements it plans to make to reduce suicide rates. He praised Shinseki for focusing on the “epidemic” of veteran suicides, but said the new report “suggests that we still have a lot more work to do. . . Every veteran suicide represents a collective failure of our nation to properly care for those who have borne the battle. I know we can do better.”
The inspector general’s office found that nearly a third of veterans deemed at high risk for suicide don’t receive the recommended follow-up care after they’ve been discharged from VHA mental health facilities. While the VHA requires its mental health clinicians to evaluate suicidal patients at least weekly for the 30 days after their discharge from inpatient care, about 30 percent of the veterans whose medical records were examined did not receive all of their follow-up evaluations.
The report also outlined deficiencies in VHA hospitals’ follow-up contacts with patients, as well as missed appointments that were not properly documented. In addition, while VHA policy encourages facilities to provide follow-up evaluations of high-risk patients within 48 hours of discharge, only a quarter of patients received such services, the report says.
In response to the findings, Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s undersecretary for health, said his department would direct facilities to create a “local patient registry” for follow-up on all patients discharged from inpatient mental health units. He said the agency also would remind facilities that they need to contact veterans who miss appointments and to document those attempts.