House chairman blasts VA move to set up panel on soldier suicides

A key House committee chairman is calling on the Veterans Affairs Department to skip the step of appointing a blue-ribbon commission on soldier suicides and instead take "immediate action" to provide every service member with a mental health evaluation on discharge.

"The VA can set up five commissions, yet the real problem goes unresolved," said Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "We all know that convening meetings to study an issue in order to formulate a report to offer recommendations is not actions."

On Wednesday, VA Secretary James Peake appointed a working group on suicide prevention with five members drawn from the Defense and Health and Human Services departments. The panel is slated to make recommendations on how the VA can improve its programs in suicide prevention, research and education.

This government panel, Peake said, will be aided by a nine-member panel made up of experts from universities across the country. "There is nothing more tragic than the death by suicide of even one of the great men or women who have served this nation," Peake said. He added that the VA is committed "to doing all we can to improve our understanding of a complicated issue that is also a national concern."

But the VA had downplayed veteran suicide attempts until last month, according to an internal e-mail produced in a federal trial in San Francisco last month related to a lawsuit brought by two veterans groups. The groups want a judge to compel the VA to provide better mental health care for all veterans.

Earlier this month, Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told reporters at an annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Washington that it was possible that "suicides and psychiatric mortality...could trump combat deaths" in ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Filner said, "veterans cannot wait -- and should not have to wait -- for a blue ribbon panel to come out yet again with another report," and called on the VA to evaluate every service member at discharge for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.

The VA panel will meet June 11-13 and is scheduled to deliver its report to Peake within 15 days.

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