Rep. Bob Filner (D) of California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, says years of underfunding and poor leadership are to blame for the system's shortcomings, particularly a shortage of mental-health services for the new veterans.
"It's a long history of not being funded properly," says Representative Filner. "Morale goes down in a place when you get asked to do more and more with less and less."
Even with a 40 percent increase in VA funding over the past two fiscal years, says Filner, spread throughout the VA's vast bureaucracy, the money "takes a while to filter down." Some 250,000 VA employees are spread among about 1,500 facilities from medical centers to community clinics to nursing homes. In the last year, the VA started a suicide hot line, made plans to hire suicide prevention coordinators for each medical center, and convened panels of mental-health experts to advise the department on improving suicide prevention.
Veterans' mental health and suicides have become critical issues. One reason: More survive war thanks to better armor and battlefield treatment, but are also more likely to be left with serious mental injuries, according to experts who have studied US casualty causes and rates in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The VA came under particularly harsh criticism earlier this year when an e-mail surfaced showing that VA officials discussed keeping secret the figure of about 1,000 attempted suicides per month among veterans in VA facilities. The secretary of the VA later said the figure was unreliable, but he got a thorough tongue-lashing from Congress and veterans groups nevertheless.
"To me, we've committed murder," says Filner of reports of veterans who commit suicide while waiting for an appointment to see a VA mental-health specialist.