WASHINGTON - The Veterans Affairs Department hopes to reduce the risk of suicide among veterans by making greater use of video conferences between patients and doctors and by gradually integrating its electronic health records with those maintained by the Defense Department, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told mental health professionals Wednesday.
Among active-duty troops, there has been an uptick in suicides this year - about one a day, compared with one every 36 hours in previous years, The Associated Press reported earlier this month. Among veterans from all of the nation's wars, about 18 each day commit suicide.
Shinseki said the video conferencing would reduce the distance patients have to travel and make it easier to fit appointments within a busy schedule. He also pointed out that more veterans were communicating with the department's staff through online chats and text messages, and that the department is encouraging the trend because it lessens the stigma that some patients feel when they seek treatment.
"Shame keeps too many veterans from seeking help," Shinseki said at a suicide prevention conference.
Shinseki oversees a department that members of Congress have criticized heavily in recent months for overstating how frequently patients are able to see a doctor or other mental health professional. An inspector general's investigation found that nearly half of the veterans seeking mental health care for the first time waited about 50 days before getting a full evaluation. Meanwhile, the VA had been reporting that the vast majority of evaluations were being conducted within 14 days.
Shinseki said the path toward suicide often begins before soldiers take off their uniforms, and that's why he hopes to integrate the electronic health records used by the VA and the Defense Department by 2017. He specifically cited one soldier's suicide to make his case that the two departments need to do a better job of maintaining and sharing information, noting that the solider knew he was experiencing mental distress and asked to retire rather than go back to Iraq. That request was denied.
Shinseki said that upon the soldier's return from Iraq his military records contained no entries of depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. His enrollment in the VA also did not reflect that he was in distress.
"VA should have received ample warning about the mental health burden this veteran was carrying," Shinseki said. "There was no handoff between our departments that would have enabled us to track and treat this veteran or any other veteran today."
VA officials note that the suicide rate among veterans has remained rather constant since 2005, while it has increased slightly for the general public. Also, as many as two-thirds of the veterans who commit suicide are not enrolled in VA health care.
"We can't influence and help those we don't see," Shinseki said.