Thursday, May 8, 2008

The VA and Soldier Suicides

Yes, here I am dipping my toe into health care policy once again. But I can’t help but react to the announcement this week from the National Institute of Mental Health that suicide rates among soldiers and veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan might exceed combat deaths. As of May 7, 2008, the Department of Defense casualty statistics state that 4,071 soldiers have died in the Iraq conflict, and 492 have died in the Afghanistan conflict. Veterans Affairs secretary Dr. James Peake admitted to Congress this week that there are probably over 1,000 suicide attempts per month by patients within the VA system. In 2007, a VA official said that only 790 soldiers attempted suicide that year; the VA has been accused of under-reporting suicide rates.

Technical and medical advances have greatly improved survival rates for soldiers injured on the battlefield, but as a result there are more seriously injured veterans to treat within the VA system, according to Government A RAND Corporation study estimates that about 300,000 returning Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers have post-traumatic stress disorder (only half receive treatment for PTSD), and 320,000 have a traumatic brain injury.

I remember that in 2006, the VA was widely praised as a model health care system. In fact, I assigned a story on this very topic to a freelance writer I worked with. The VA boasted an efficient, timesaving electronic medical record (EMR) system, geographically widespread facilities, access to and support of new medical treatments and techniques, and lower prescription drug costs than many private health plans due to bulk drug purchases. The VA has been considered a possible model for a nationwide universal health care plan.

Its image has been tarnished more recently, with the mismanagement and neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center reported by the Washington Post in 2007, for example. There is currently a class-action lawsuit against the VA in San Francisco, contending that the VA provides inadequate mental health services. Furthermore, many middle-income veterans and their families are ineligible for VA coverage, due to enrollment restrictions imposed by the Bush administration in 2003, Physicians for a National Health Program told last year.

The fundamental problem is limited funding, which threatens the VA every year. This problem will only get worse as soldiers continue to return home with complex and expensive mental and physical health problems. The suicide rate is a stark reminder that the VA has failed to help these people.

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