Veteran Suicides at VA Hospitals Stress Dire Need for Change

Veteran Suicides at VA Hospitals Stress Dire Need for Change

Over the last year, 19 veterans have committed suicide on a VA campus - a clear plea for much-needed improvements to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ mental health treatment facilities. Our heroic veterans and their families are begging the VA for help. But despite repeated promises of overhauls, we aren’t seeing progress.

In the fall of 2015, the VA canceled yet another appointment for 51-year old Gulf War vet Charles Ingram. They never followed up to reschedule so Ingram went in to make an appointment himself. They penciled in for three months later. Just before his March 2016 appointment, Ingram set himself on fire in front of the New Jersey VA clinic.

An investigation into Ingram’s death discovered clinic staff repeatedly failed to follow up on cancellations and no-shows, inaction the inspector general says led to “a lack of ordered therapy and necessary medications…”

Five months later, 76-year-old Navy veteran and former police officer Peter A. Kaisen shot himself in the parking lot of Long Island’s Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center after the Center denied emergency treatment for his mental health condition.

In November 2016, 32-year-old Afghanistan veteran and former Army vet David Toombs hanged himself at Murfreesboro, Tennesee’s Alvin C. York VA Medical Center after being dismissed from a 90-day inpatient PTSD and substance abuse treatment program. Medical records say he was kicked out for being late to pick up his prescriptions and not following instructions.

"Earlier today I was discharged for trivial reasons," Toombs says in a video on his Facebook page. "I came for help and they threw me out like a stray dog in the rain."

In February 2018, 33-year-old Marine and Iraq veteran Justin Miller shot himself in the parking lot of the Minneapolis Department of Veterans Affairs hospital after the hospital failed to schedule a follow up appointment and properly assess his access to firearms.

Miller had called the Veterans Crisis line about his suicidal thoughts. The crisis hotline responder said he needed to have someone hold onto his guns and get to the VA hospital. But a nurse discharged him after just four hours, saying Miller was an intermediate/moderate suicide risk and “does not currently meet dangerousness criteria for a 72-hour hold.”

In March 2018, 62-year-old Marine Corps Vietnam veteran Philip Crews committed suicide in the waiting room of the St. Louis John Cochran VA Medical Center. Reports suggest he was having financial difficulties after becoming addicted to opioid painkillers prescribed for his severe stomach pains.

In December 2018, 55-year-old retired Marine Col. Jim Turner shot himself in the parking lot of the St. Petersburg, Florida Bay Pines Department of Veterans Affairs. He was found sitting on his VA and military records. His ex-wife and brother believe Turner ended his life after repeatedly having to wait for appointments and being refused treatment.

“I bet if you look at the 22 suicides a day you will see VA screwed up in 90%,” a note found near his body said. "I did 20+ years, had PTSD and still had to pay over $1,000 a month health care."

The current state of the VA mental health system is appalling. Appointment wait times and poor staffing are unacceptable in a hospital system that knows its patient population exhibits a risk of suicide 1.5 times greater than that of the civilian population. On average, twenty veterans commit suicide every day.

Veterans are reaching out for help. They’re calling crisis hotlines, seeking treatment, and telling loved ones about their issues. And VA hospitals are turning them away.

The VA’s new executive director for suicide prevention, Keita Franklin, recently told the Washington Post that the agency “now trains parking lot attendants and patrols on suicide intervention.” Is this really the type of improvement our nation’s veterans are seeking?

Between 2001 and 2014, suicide rates among veterans rose by 32%. Patrolling the VA parking lot isn’t the answer.

As a veterans’ disability benefits attorney, I’ve received numerous devastating phone calls from family members of veterans who have committed suicide. The VA’s failure to promptly grant veterans’ claims and provide immediate, quality care only amplifies the mental trauma they are experiencing.

The Department of Veterans Affairs must prioritize claims for mental disabilities. We must provide a surplus of staff, not skimp on funds and ignore veterans’ needs. Suicide prevention is the key. We must act early, helping new veterans address their issues before things get out of hand.

The Trump administration has placed veteran suicide prevention at the top of its medical priority, signing an executive order to give all veterans mental health care in the 12 months following service – even those ineligible for care.

We must also provide immediate treatment to veterans who may have received an other than honorable discharge.  I have represented scores of veterans who have received a dishonorable discharge for alleged misconduct that was, in hindsight, just the early manifestations of PTSD or some other mental illness.  We have been able to help veterans obtain service connection and VA benefits for mental health issues like PTSD even though they have another than honorable discharge.

VA needs to recognize that most bad conduct discharges stem from the early, undiagnosed signs of mental illness—which go undetected for years after discharge.  In the meantime, these veterans are getting no help and often fall through the cracks. I have helped countless veterans get service connected for psychiatric or mental illness claims (PTSD, schizophrenia, Depression, Anxiety, Adjustment Disorder, TBI, etc.) despite having an other than honorable or dishonorable discharge.

In addition, we must provide therapeutic care for our veterans who have been suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and other mental illness for years. Veteran suicide is a national crisis. Short staffing and poor resources are inexcusable. We can no longer afford to ignore these brave men and women who fought for our freedom with the promise of care once they came home.

If you or a loved one are suffering from suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If you or someone you know has been denied VA benefits for PTSD, Depression, Anxiety or any mental illness, we can help. Our Veterans’ Disability Benefits Law Firm specializes in handling difficult, hard to prove cases that have been on appeal for years. Contact us today at 888.878.9350 or Use This Online Form.

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