News Releases

SPOKANE VA: Murray Seeks Assurances on Suicide Reporting and Staffing Issues Raised in Reports

Dec 22 2009

In letter to Spokane VA, Murray requests information on expanded data collection for veterans suicides, update on efforts to fill key mental health care positions

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Spokane Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Director Sharon Helman seeking answers on two issues of concern raised in recent reports on the Spokane VA. In her letter, Murray calls on the Spokane VA to provide information on ongoing efforts to expand reporting of veterans suicides and on efforts to fill critical mental health positions. Murray’s letter comes in response to a report produced by the Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI) at the VA and from the VA’s written responses to a separate inquiry regarding this situation.

On the issue of suicide reporting Murray writes:

“It appears that Spokane VAMC’s method of suicide reporting, while in keeping with the VA’s national policy, may have resulted in inaccurately low numbers of reported suicides…. I understand that an expanded suicide reporting process is now under consideration which would include suicide data for veterans who have not sought care through the VA…. I would like to be kept fully informed on this reporting process as it moves forward.”

On the issue of improving staffing for mental health care services Murray writes:

“It is critical that Spokane VAMC has the staff needed to provide quality, timely mental health care, especially as veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan with invisible wounds of war such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), I hope you can assure me that you have addressed this situation and have systems in place to avoid it in the future.”

Senator Murray also raised the issue of increasing staffing for mental health care at VA facilities with Dr, Robert A. Petzel, the VA nominee for Under Secretary for Health and at a hearing on December 9th. Read the transcript.

The following is the full text of the letter Senator Murray sent today:

December 22, 2009

Sharon Helman
Director
Spokane Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center
4815 North Assembly Street
Spokane, Washington 99205

Dear Director Helman:

I am writing to seek additional information about two issues of concern at the Spokane Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Spokane VAMC).  Specifically, I am troubled by reports that Spokane VAMC has not recorded all veterans’ suicides for the Spokane area, and that the Behavioral Health Service at Spokane VAMC has been understaffed in the last six months.

I have been provided with a report produced by the Office of the Medical Inspector (OMI) at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) regarding veteran suicide at the Spokane VAMC.  My office has also been provided with the VA written response to an inquiry regarding this situation.  While I appreciate the VA’s response to the concerns raised in the inquiry, I am also seeking your assurances as Director of Spokane VAMC that everything possible is being done to collect the best data on veterans’ suicides and to ensure that veterans are provided with the highest level of mental health care.

In particular, I seek more information about Spokane VAMC’s efforts to ensure accurate recording of veterans’ suicide data in the Spokane area.  According to VA’s response to the Congressional inquiry, “there is no national VA policy for obtaining information on veteran suicides that have never accessed VA for care.”  As a result, Spokane VAMC historically recorded veterans’ suicide data only for those veterans who are “being actively treated or those that were reported by the community to the medical center.”

It appears that Spokane VAMC’s method of suicide reporting, while in keeping with the VA’s national policy, may have resulted in inaccurately low numbers of reported suicides.  This is troubling, since the VA should have a realistic sense of the number of veterans’ suicides if it is to take the steps needed to address the problem.  I understand that an expanded suicide reporting process is now under consideration which would include suicide data for veterans who have not sought care through the VA.  I also understand that Spokane VAMC has contacted the Spokane Coroner’s Office for its veterans’ suicide records as part of this effort.  Is it difficult to collect this data on a regular basis?  I would like to be kept fully informed on this reporting process as it moves forward and also on any other efforts to ensure that veterans’ suicide data is accurate and complete.

From the aforementioned inquiry, I am aware of some of the staffing obstacles at the Spokane VAMC.  I have noted that several key positions have been vacant in the last few months and I would like to be provided with an update on efforts to fully staff the Behavioral Health Service at Spokane VAMC.  Also, please help me better understand the staffing situation at the Spokane VAMC by answering the following questions:  

• What is the staffing situation over the past six months? 
• What are the reasons for the staffing shortages this year? 
• As the staffing shortage is addressed, are veterans seeking mental health care at Spokane VAMC and affiliated Community Based Outpatient Clinics receiving care in a timely manner? 
• In general, what hurdles do you face in attracting qualified psychologists, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals to work at the Spokane VAMC?

It is critical that Spokane VAMC has the staff needed to provide quality, timely mental health care, especially as veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan with invisible wounds of war such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), I hope you can assure me that you have addressed this situation and have systems in place to avoid it in the future. 

I look forward to your response on these pressing issues.

Sincerely,

Patty Murray
United States Senate

cc: VISN 20 Director Susan Pendergrast