Representatives from the Department of Veterans Affairs and veterans' groups testified on Wednesday at a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing examining the issue of suicide, CQ Today reports. The latest statistics gathered by VA do not "demonstrate an increased risk of suicide among (Iraq and Afghanistan) veterans compared to the age and gender-matched American population as a whole," according to Ira Katz, deputy chief for mental health care services at VA. The hearing followed recent media reports indicating that veterans returning from those war zones have nearly double the risk of committing suicide as non-veterans (Yoest, CQ Today, 12/12).

Katz said VA has made improvements in its efforts to reduce the suicide rate of veterans with the implementation of "a major suicide prevention program, the most comprehensive in the nation" (Hefling, AP/Long Island Newsday, 12/13). Katz also stressed the importance of adjusting for factors that could impact suicide data, saying, "Those who come to the VA for care tend to be older, less socio-economically well off, and more likely to have a mental health condition or another chronic illness." He added that it is "by no means surprising that those receiving care from VA have higher suicide rates that those in the general population" (CQ Today, 12/12).

Mike Bowman, a parent of an Illinois National Guard servicemember that committed suicide in 2005 after serving in Iraq, raised concern about the lack of a comprehensive system that keeps track of suicide among military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Committee Chair Bob Filner (D-Calif.) questioned why comprehensive tracking was not in place already. According to AP/Newsday, VA tracks suicides among Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been discharged, while the Department of Defense tracks the number of suicides that take place in Iraq and Afghanistan (AP/Long Island Newsday, 12/13).

CBS' "Evening News" on Wednesday reported on the suicide hearing. The segment includes comments from Filner and Katz (Keteyian, "Evening News," CBS, 12/12). Video of the segment and expanded CBS News coverage are available online.

Peake Promises To Improve Mental Health Services
In related news, James Peake, President Bush's nominee for VA secretary, said he wants to work quickly to improve mental health care services for veterans, AP/Newsday reports. In a 22-page disclosure submitted to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee and acquired by the Associated Press, Peake said he wants to increase staff at VA clinics to help fight servicemembers' resistance to seek treatment for depression. Peake also said he wants to implement improved plans for veterans' health care in times of war and other national crises.

In addition, Peake said that he would work to retain top VA officials through measures that do not include performance bonuses awarded without regard to merit, as was the case under former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, AP/Newsday reports. The Senate committee on Thursday will vote on his nomination (Yen, AP/Long Island Newsday, 12/13).

Reprinted with kind permission from kaisernetwork. You can view the entire Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, search the archives, or sign up for email delivery at kaisernetwork/dailyreports/healthpolicy. The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report is published for kaisernetwork, a free service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation© 2005 Advisory Board Company and Kaiser Family Foundation. All rights reserved.

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