Veterans Affairs Mental Health Official Faces Questions Over Secretive E-Mail

The Department of Veterans Affairs' top mental health official said Tuesday the wording in an e-mail to colleagues he sent out about suicide data that started out with "Shh!" was unfortunate.

Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's mental health director, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that the subject line was an error and he apologizes for it.

The e-mail claims that 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 might have been attempting to hide the number of attempted suicides by those under the agency's care. The judge has not yet ruled in the lawsuit filed by two veterans groups. The suit asks a judge to order the agency to improve its mental health care.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner accused Katz of being more concerned about how data was interpreted than the health of veterans and said he and others involved with the e-mails should be fired. Filner started the hearing by accusing the agency of criminal negligence in the handling of data about the number of veterans who have committed suicide.

Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake told panel members that data discussed in e-mails about the number of veterans who had attempted suicide was not released because of concerns about its accuracy. He said the agency is actively reaching out to veterans to encourage them to get help if they are at risk for suicide.