The controversy over lengthy delays at several of the nation’s Veterans Affairs medical facilities, including the Atlanta VA Medical Center in DeKalb County, has drawn significant criticism that those waits may have contributed to veterans’ deaths.
One such voice is U.S. Rep. David Scott, a Democrat who represents portions of metro Atlanta. Scott was among lawmakers from both parties calling for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki’s removal before the secretary resigned last Friday.
In an interview with WABE just before that resignation, Scott tried to draw attention to the specific concern of mental health treatment in the scandal, which is compounded by allegations of efforts to cover up the delays.
"We’ve got an average of 5,600 soldiers committing suicide," Scott said. "That’s about 20 a day."
Back-of-a-napkin math shows an immediate miscalculation. That annual rate of suicides would mean 15 daily suicides.
But even with the math blunder, those daily rates seemed striking enough for PolitiFact to want to get to the bottom of the matter.
A spokesman for the congressman said he was first drawn to the issue of mental health services for veterans after reading an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation last year.
In his WABE interview, Scott blamed Shinseki in particular and the VA in general, saying, "Nobody has been held accountable for all of those suicides."
The AJC probe of the VA facility in DeKalb found that more than 500 veterans were on a waiting list to receive mental health care in 2010. Sixteen attempted suicide.
The Atlanta VA tried to solve the problem by referring more veterans to outside treatment. But by 2012, that decision created long waiting lists at those outside clinics, according to the AJC investigation.
Last year, federal audits tied the deaths of three veterans in Atlanta to poor oversight by hospital staff, including some who had been referred to outside facilities. It was later revealed that a fourth veteran committed suicide in a VA hospital bathroom, prompting the replacement of both the head of the hospital and the mental health director.
"His big concern is for veterans who need help and can’t get it," said Scott’s chief of staff, Michael Andel. "It’s about the delay, especially in getting care in mental health needs."
Andel referred us to an advocacy and support group, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, or IAVA, and a 2013 newspaper story about a VA study on suicide data. Both cite the daily estimate of 22 suicides by veterans.
A closer look at the VA study, however, slightly complicates the issue. Based on the most extensive data ever collected by the VA on suicide, the report does calculate that 22 veterans die each day from suicide.
But the estimate applies to all veterans, not soldiers who are on active or reserve services as Scott describes.
The estimate relies on state data that identify the dead as veterans. It therefore includes those with or without any history of accessing VA care.
A spokeswoman for the VA in Washington confirmed that the report also cites recent increases in the rates of suicide in the general population among middle-age adults between 35 and 64 years of age. The report found the majority of veteran suicides, about 70 percent, were by those age 50 and older.
The report found that veterans make up a smaller percentage of the country’s suicides than a previous study in 2007. That suggests that an effort to improve suicide prevention programs at the VA had an effect, the report concludes, while also recommending additional improvements.
"VA must continue to provide a high level of care, and recognize that there is still much more work to do," according to the study’s executive summary. "As long as Veterans die by suicide, we must continue to improve and provide even better services and care."
Andel said Scott’s statement was a part of the congressman’s effort to use the study’s findings to push for change. Scott supports a proposal from U.S. Rep. Larry Bucshon, a Republican from Indiana, to offer employment incentives to psychiatrists who agree to work for the VA to help with the shortage of services.
The IAVA has lobbied for a separate bill, the Senate’s Suicide Prevention for America's Veterans Act. Among other things, it calls for recruiting more health care workers to the VA and Department of Defense and reviewing those agencies’ suicide prevention programs.
"We feel the system fails veterans, and that takes us to a point where unfortunately veterans are considering and committing suicide," said Nick McCormick, a legislative associate with the IAVA. "We want to get that information out so there can be change."
To sum it up, though Scott is a little off on his math, he’s close enough on the daily rates for us. He has a point to drive home, that a lot of veterans are dying by their own hands.
The problem is when he attempts to link the daily suicide rates of all military veterans, who may never have visited a VA center, with the current scandal. The study offers no evidence to back up the implication that blame lies with the VA on those deaths.
With that context, we rate Scott’s statements as Half True.