FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 25, 2013
SCHUMER CALLS FOR VA COMMUNICATION OVERHAUL SO THAT 43 UPSTATE VA SITES CAN COORDINATE WITH POLICE, ENSURE VETS GET THE HELP THEY NEED TO AVOID HURTING THEMSELVES & OTHERS – INEFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION BETWEEN VA & OTHERS ALLOWED NAVY YARD SHOOTER TO GO WITHOUT MENTAL HEALTH TREATMENT, EVEN AFTER WARNING SIGNS
In August, Aaron Alexis Told R.I. Police He Was Hearing Voices – Police Told Local Naval Officials, But Info Never Made It To VA; Communication Gap Meant No Mental Help Was Offered
Schumer To Call For Dept. of Vets Affairs to Establish 24-Hour Nat’l Response Center So Upstate NY Police, First Responders And Others Can Report Vets In Need Of Help Directly To VA – Then 8 Upstate VA Medical Centers or 35 Community-Based Outpatient Clinics Can Offer Treatment
Plan Would Link Up All NY Law Enforcement, NY VA Sites & Nat’l VA Resources to Allow Them To Reach Out Immediately To Veterans In Distress and Potentially Stop Next Tragedy
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today called on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to vigorously review their mental health protocols, and related communications procedures, in the wake of the Washington D.C. Navy Yard shooting. Aaron Alexis, the perpetrator of the Navy Yard shootings, was a Navy reservist and later became an information technology contractor with the Navy. Despite having told police he was hearing voices, Alexis never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist. Alexis also went to two different VA Medical Center emergency rooms and was released after being prescribed medication to treat insomnia. Schumer today said that Alexis fell through the cracks at the VA and clearly should have been treated by mental health professionals. Schumer wants to ensure that veterans in Upstate New York that have demonstrated violent inclinations towards themselves or others, or those that demonstrate signs of mental health conditions to law enforcement, can get the mental health treatment they need at local veterans’ facilities. Schumer is a) urging the VA to thoroughly review their mental health practices for veterans and b) will specifically recommend the agency set up a Joint Emergency Psychiatric Response Center that would work with the Department of Defense, local and state law enforcement and existing mental health systems to identify at-risk veterans. This national response center would be open 24-hours a day, and would help ensure that law enforcement can easily identify vets that need help to the 8 VA Medical Centers and 35 community-based outpatient clinics in Upstate New York.
Schumer provided a list of VA medical centers in Upstate New York that could better coordinate and share information with each other and with local law enforcement via this national, 24-hour response center in order to better serve local veterans, particularly those that demonstrate warning signs of mental illness or an intention to harm themselves or others. VA Medical Centers (8): Buffalo, Canandaigua, Bath, Syracuse, Albany, Batavia, Montrose and Castle Point. Community-based outpatient clinics (35): Jamestown, Dunkirk, Lackawanna, Niagara Falls, Lockport, Springville, Olean, Wellsville, Rochester, Auburn, Elmira, Binghamton, Bainbridge, Tompkins/Cortland, Oswego, Schenectady, Rome, Fonda, Troy, Clifton Park, Glens Falls, Westport, Saranac Lake, Watertown, Plattsburgh, Malone, Massena, Catskill, Kingston, Monticello, Carmel, Pine Plains, Poughkeepsie, White Plains, and Yonkers.
“The events at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard were absolutely tragic; and first and foremost, I offer my sympathies to the families of the victims. Now, we must do all we can to prevent an incident like this one from re-occurring, and one crucial action we must take is to shed light on a larger issue: mental health conditions among veterans. Our brave veterans simply should not fall through the cracks upon returning home,” said Schumer. “We must remove the stigma of mental disorders that prevents veterans in Upstate New York from seeking treatment. And a good start would be for the VA to review its current mental health protocols, and consider new ways to share information with our law enforcement officials. That’s why I’m advocating for a Joint Emergency Psychiatric Response Center through which local and state law enforcement can easily identify veterans in need of mental health services to the VA in order to avoid future acts of violence.”
Schumer today urged the VA to investigate how to improve the way it provides mental health assessments and treatment. Specifically, he encouraged the VA National Office of Mental Health to work with Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury to make these improvements by increasing the number and type of mental health providers in their system so that more patients can have access to this life-saving resource. Estimates show that Mental Health Counselors comprise more than 30 percent of the independently licensed behavioral health workforce and they often practice in rural and underserved areas, but Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists make up very little of the VA mental health workforce. Schumer said that while psychiatrists have been serving the VA well, these other mental health professionals are needed to address the shortage in mental health care for vets.
Schumer also recommended that the VA and Department of Defense (DOD) explore the idea of implementing a national Joint Emergency Psychiatric Response Center. Schumer suggested that the center work with New York State and local law enforcement, and the New York VA medical sites, to identify at-risk veterans, service members or defense contractors who appear to be suffering from a mental disorder. The Center would coordinate the response to these reports, including getting the individuals the help they need and coordinating any relevant security response. Schumer added that a key component of a Joint Emergency Psychiatric Response Center should be a hotline that is operational 24 hours a day. This will ensure that those in need of mental health services have access to resources at any given time. Schumer noted that in the case of Aaron Alexis, local police were aware that he was hearing voices. Schumer explained that if a Center were created, law enforcement personnel could have contacted the Center about the at-risk veteran and ensured that he got the help he needed and also coordinated any relevant security response.
Schumer suggested the following scenario through which the Joint Emergency Psychiatric Response Center could work, but made clear that he would leave it up to experts at the VA to determine the best protocol to achieve these results:
The VA could establish a 24 hour phone line and active computer system that would be operated by VA specialists in mental health, and that would work with local and state law enforcement to identify at-risk veterans/soldiers/contractors that are in need of mental health treatment.
· Through that system, law enforcement can report/identify people of concern that may have appeared to be under serious emotional distress, that committed a crime, or that police encountered in some other way.
· Then, someone at the VA processes that information in real-time, and puts it into a shared file for that veteran that is accessible by VA medical centers and outpatient clinics.
· Specialists at the VA would also recommend any potential immediate action, which could include: therapy, hospitalization, or other treatment.
· Additionally, the Joint Center would document this contact with the veteran, including the recommended treatment with VA, so it would be flagged during any future medical visits or hospitalizations.
Schumer said that this could also help with the treatment of veterans that do not intend to hurt others, but those that might be suicidal. Over the past few years, military suicides have continued to increase. In 2012, there were 349 suicides among active-duty troops, the most ever recorded according to the Pentagon, up from 301 the year before. More American soldiers died from suicide last year than from combat in Afghanistan. Schumer said that there are many warning signs leading up to suicide that could help prevent these tragedies. For example, a failed suicide attempt would bring local police to the scene, and those law enforcement officials could report such an incident to the Joint Emergency Psychiatric Response Center, making the VA aware and allowing them to follow-up with that veteran.
On September 16th, Aaron Alexis shot and killed twelve people at the Washington Navy Yard and injured others. Alexis served as an Aviation Electrician’s Mate Third Class, working on aircraft electrical systems, and after leaving the Navy, Alexis filed a disability compensation claim. Alexis received a 30 percent disability rating from the VA due to orthopedic issues and tinnitus.
In August, Alexis went to the emergency room at two different VA Medical Centers, one in Rhode Island and one in Washington D.C. During his visits, he was treated with medication for insomnia and told to follow up with a visit to a primary-care provider. According to the VA, Alexis either canceled or failed to show up for primary-care appointments. While enrolled in the VA’s medical program, Alexis never sought an appointment from a mental health specialist. Also in August, Alexis told the Newport Police Department in Rhode Island that he was hearing voices and couldn’t sleep because of vibrations in his body. Alexis said that three people were talking to him through the walls, floor and ceiling and that they used a microwave machine to send the vibrations. The police contacted security personnel at the Navy Yard who felt Alexis was not a threat, but the VA was never notified of the incident.
Schumer noted that the VA has taken initiative in other areas to address mental health issues amongst veterans. For example, the VA has added more rural and mobile clinics to ensure that more veterans have access to health care no matter where they live. The VA has also provided Mental Health Treatment Coordinators to be assigned to each veteran that receives specialty mental care to ensure that every veteran who is seeking help has a single point of contact.