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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs' top mental health official said Tuesday he made a poor choice of words when he sent his colleagues an e-mail about suicide data that started out with "Shh!"
Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's mental health director, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the e-mail was in poor tone — even though the body contained "appropriate, healthy dialogue" about the data.
"I deeply regret the subject line," Katz said. "It was an error and I apologize for that."
The e-mail claims 12,000 veterans a year attempt suicide while under department treatment. "Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?" the e-mail asks.
The e-mail was among those recently disclosed during a trial in San Francisco that suggested some at the VA might have been attempting to hide the number of attempted suicides by those under the agency's care. Its disclosure prompted two Democratic senators to call for his resignation.
At the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said Bush has "full confidence in Secretary Peake and believes that he is handling it appropriately."
"President Bush is very concerned about the mental health of our veterans and has made sure that we are doing everything we can to make sure that American veterans are getting the care that they need," Perino said. "He's also been very troubled by the idea that veterans would feel that they wouldn't be able to express or ask for help if they are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression of another sort or any type of mental disorder. Because we have resources to be able to help them and they deserve the very best that we can provide."
The committee's chairman, Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., accused Katz of being more concerned about how data was interpreted than the health of veterans. He also said Katz — as well as others involved — should be fired. He accused the agency of criminal negligence in the handling of data about the number of veterans who have committed suicide, and of having a history of cover-ups.
"I want to know if you're really going to take your role seriously," Filner said to Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake, who started in December.
Peake said the reason the data discussed in the e-mail about the number of suicide attempts was not released was because of concerns about its accuracy. After the hearing, he told reporters he did not plan to fire Katz or other officials over the e-mails. He said everyone has sent an embarrassing e-mail at some point.
"It truly was an unfortunate set of words," Peake said.
During the hearing, Peake apologized to Reps. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., who complained the VA was not giving them information they requested. Mitchell, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said he was told he would need to file a freedom of information act request to get some data he wanted.
Peake said he wants the agency to be more forthcoming and transparent.
He also sought to set the record straight about the number of veterans committing suicide. He said of the nearly 500,000 veterans who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and then left the military from 2002-2005, 144 had taken their own lives. He said that rate was slightly higher than would be expected in the comparable general population, but it was not a statistically significant amount.
The judge in San Francisco has not ruled in the lawsuit filed in federal court by two veterans groups, Veterans for Common Sense in Washington and Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Veterans United for Truth. The suit asks a judge to order the agency to improve its mental health care