Joint Hearing of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the U.S. Senate and the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives at 1:00 p.m. CDT.
Opening Statement of Hon. Timothy J. Walz, a Representative in Congress from the State of Minnesota
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Buyer, members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to speak. And thank you to the witnesses who are here today.
I have been troubled by recent, credible allegations that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been withholding important information about the rates of suicides and suicide attempts among America’s veterans. I wrote to Chairman Filner requesting a hearing, and I am very pleased that we are having one. We must reach out to our veterans – young and old -- to make sure they know where they should go for help if they are feeling suicidal. The VA should get all of the resources and tools it needs to care for our veterans. The reason I called for an investigation is so that we can get our facts straight, and from there, we’ll have a better sense of whether new legislation is needed to address this problem…or just new leadership on these issues. The VA must be forthcoming about what it knows about suicide attempts among veterans in the VA system and overall, as well as about suicides. Only if we have accurate information can we act decisively to address this troubling trend among veterans.
I have been very pleased to work with the fine people at the VA in Minnesota to ensure that our veterans continue to receive world-class health care at VA facilities. When the latest information about the VA was disclosed, I wrote to the head of VISN 23 requesting information on mental health care for Minnesota’s veterans and statistics on suicide and suicide attempts among them. He and his staff have worked diligently to gather the facts that I had requested, and I appreciate that. I have not yet seen the information, as it came back from VA in Washington only this morning, right before this hearing began, but I look forward to reviewing it carefully so the people of the First District and all of Minnesota can be sure that we are doing all we can to help Minnesota’s veterans.
I commend CBS news for bringing important facts to light, fulfilling the press’ duty to the public and its right to know. Internal VA emails obtained by CBS show a concerted effort by Dr. Katz and others at the VA to minimize the extent to which the public would learn facts unflattering to the VA and its ability to serve veterans in need of mental health assistance. In February of this year, Dr. Katz sent an email to Ev Chasen, VA’s Chief Communications Officer, with the subject: “Not for the CBS News Interview Request.” In the email exchange, Dr. Katz and Ev Chasen discussed how to deal with the VA’s own data showing alarming rates of suicide attempts – 1000 per month – among veterans in the VA medical system itself. They were clearly trying to minimize the publicity the information might receive. The spirit of Dr. Katz’s email was characterized by its first line, stating, “Shhh!”
In December of 2007, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held a hearing on the topic at which Dr. Katz testified. At that hearing, he at times sought to cast doubt on a recent CBS report about the numbers of suicides among veterans. At other times in the hearing, he appeared to confirm the numbers CBS was reporting, but did so in a way that was not clear, parsing words and numbers. In an email just three days after that hearing, also published by CBS, Dr. Katz wrote an email to a colleague at the VA which made clear that VA’s own numbers on the rate of suicide among veterans were in line with the CBS report. Reviewing that transcript is a disturbing experience, because Dr. Katz and others seemed more interested in distracting from the issue at hand by bashing the news media, than in informing the Committee, the press and the public about this very important matter so that we can address it in as effective a way as possible.
I am pleased that we are having this follow up hearing today, so that we may gain all the facts and thereby work to prevent suicide among our veterans.