Patty in the News

Washington Sen. Patty Murray on Wednesday encouraged state governments to start tallying veteran suicides, as Washington already does.

Her goal is to quantify an under-reported number that could help health agencies improve their outreach to service members who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has an incomplete picture of suicide among former service members because it doesn’t count the deaths of veterans not enrolled in VA care.

“One of the most significant obstacles to understanding veteran suicide is the lack of information available regarding these individuals,” Murray wrote with two of her Democratic colleagues in a letter to the National Governors Association.

“In many cases the Department of Veterans Affairs does not even know that a veteran has died if that individual was not enrolled in VA health care,” wrote Murray.

Sixteen states report numbers of veteran suicides to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s violent death database. In 2008, 19 percent of the suicides reported from those states to the CDC were veterans.

The CDC database has led to estimates that as many as 6,400 veterans kill themselves every year, according to the VA Office of Inspector General.

Washington is one of the states contributing to the database. An average of 222 veterans and current service members in Washington took their lives each year between 2000 and 2009, according to data the state Department of Public Health provided to the CDC.

The low year was 2006, when 200 Washington veterans and service members killed themselves. The high was 2009, when the health department counted 249 veteran suicides.

Murray argues that the shortage of nationwide information makes it difficult to change policies that could deter suicide.

Gathering the data presents its own challenge for local governments and states.

Washington generally obtains information about a veteran’s service history at funeral homes, where family members are asked about the veteran’s military background.

It’s up to relatives or friends to identify a suicide victim as a veteran, said Pamela Lovinger, senior adviser for policy and business practices at the state Department of Public Health.

County coroners do not collect data on veteran suicides, said officials at the Pierce and Kitsap county medical examiners’ offices.

Until recently, the VA had resisted disclosing its database of veteran suicides. The Bay Citizen, a San Francisco nonprofit news outlet, in May obtained VA records showing the agency was aware of 4,194 deaths among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

- The News Tribune