Opening Statement of The Honorable Jeff Miller, Chairman, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs
Welcome to today’s Full Committee oversight hearing entitled, “Service should not lead to Suicide: Access to VA’s Mental Health Care.”
Following a Committee investigation which uncovered widespread data manipulation and accompanying patient harm at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical facilities nationwide, this Committee has held a series of Full Committee oversight hearings over the last several weeks to evaluate the systemic access and integrity failures that have consumed the VA healthcare system.
Perhaps none of these hearings have presented the all-too-human face of VA’s failures so much as today’s hearing will - a hearing that I believe will show the horrible human cost VA’s dysfunction and, dare I say, corruption.
At its heart, access to care is not about numbers; it’s about people.
Recently, the Committee heard from a veteran who had attempted to receive mental health care at a VA Community-based Outpatient Clinic in Pennsylvania.
This veteran was told repeatedly by the VA employee he spoke with that he would be unable to get an appointment for six months.
However, when that employee left, another VA employee leaned in to tell this veteran that if he just told her that he was thinking of killing himself, she would be able to get him an appointment much sooner - in just three months instead of six.
Fortunately, that veteran was not considering suicide.
But what about those veterans who are?
How many of the tens of thousands of veterans that VA has now admitted have been left waiting weeks, months, and even years for care were seeking mental health care appointments?
How many are suicidal or are edging towards suicide as a result of the inability to get the care they have earned?
Despite significant increases in VA’s mental health and suicide prevention budget, programs, and staffing in recent years, the suicide rate among veteran patients has remained more or less stable since 1999, with approximately twenty-two veteran suicide deaths per day.
However, the most recent VA data has shown that over the last three years, rates of suicide have increased by nearly forty percent among male veterans under thirty who use VA healthcare services and by more than seventy percent among male veterans between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four years of age who use VA healthcare services.
This morning, we will hear testimony from three families – the Somers’, the Selke’s [SELL-KEY’S], and the Portwines – who will tell us about their sons – Daniel, Clay, and Brian - three Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans who sought VA mental health care following combat.
Each of these young men faced barrier after barrier in their struggle to get help.
Each of these young men eventually succumbed to suicide.
In a note he left behind, Daniel Somers wrote that he felt his government had “abandoned” him and referenced coming home to face a “system of dehumanization, neglect, and indifference.”
VA owed Daniel – and Clay and Brian – so much more than that.