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VA blasted over veterans suicides

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  • NEW: VA head: "If we've got something to hide, we shouldn't be hiding it"
  • House panel chair: VA "criminally negligent" on veterans suicides
  • He insists the VA has either ignored critical suicide data or covered up the numbers
  • Anger was evident across the hearing room Tuesday
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By Lisa Desjardins
CNN Radio
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The chairman of the House Veterans Committee blasted the Veterans Affairs Department on Tuesday, accusing the agency of criminal failure to respond to evidence of rising suicide rates among former soldiers.

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The Veterans Affairs Department was accused Tuesday of covering up veterans' suicide rates.

"This is a matter of life and death," said Chairman Bob Filner, D-California, "and I think there was criminal negligence in the way this was handled."

In a follow-up hearing on the veteran suicide issue, Filner insisted the VA either ignored critical suicide data or covered up the numbers.

"The pattern is deny, deny, deny," Filner told Veterans Secretary Jim Peake, "then when facts seemingly come to disagree with the denial, you cover up, cover up, cover up."

The committee was reacting to a December hearing in which Ira Katz, the VA's chief for mental health, insisted suicide data reported in the media had been exaggerated.

Three days after his testimony, Filner said, the agency indicated some alarming statistics could, in fact, be correct.

Peake responded with a list of statistics by age and gender, insisting such data can be incomplete and easily manipulated.

He confronted one of the most heated figures, an estimate that 1,000 veterans a month are attempting suicide.

"I can appreciate that the number of 1,000 suicide attempts a month might be shocking," he said, "but in a system as large as ours ... and consistent with the literature, we might well expect a larger number of attempts than that."

Peake denied there was any attempt to downplay the numbers on suicides among veterans.

"I believe that Dr. Katz was not trying to obfuscate," Peake told reporters afterward, "I have no intention of relieving Dr. Katz."

Peake, answering questions in a hallway after his testimony, said "maybe we should have been looking at this sooner, but we didn't have that infrastructure in place."

He described the data as "erratic," and said "it means nothing until we start to refine it, and make sure we have good data. And that's what the American public deserves, is good data."

In earlier testimony, Peake repeatedly testified he would not condone a cover-up.

"Our intent is to be forthcoming," he told the committee. "If we've got something to hide, we shouldn't be hiding it. We should be doing something about it."

Anger was evident across the hearing room Tuesday.

Rep. Harry Mitchell, a Democrat from Arizona was particularly irate at what he sees as stonewalling by the VA. He said he has spent four months requesting specifics on what resources the agency needs to handle the suicide issue.

"That's not just an insult to me, it's an insult to me and our veterans," he said.

He was told to file a Freedom of Information Act request, a method more commonly reserved for the public and media, not congressional committee members, he said.

"I've tried to be reasonable," Mitchell told the committee, "I've tried to work with Secretary Peake's office, but Mr. Chairman, my patience is at an end."

Mitchell told Peake that if he does not receive the documents by Friday, he will push for a committee subpoena.

In the past, Peake has denied the agency suppressed or ignored key suicide records.

CNN's Paul Courson contributed to this report.

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