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Panetta: 'Huge gaps' in military's review of mental health cases

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Senate panel on Wednesday that he is unsatisfied with the Pentagon’s current approach to combating military suicides and that the Defense Department will review its procedures for handling mental health cases.

Under questioning by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Panetta said that there are “still huge gaps” in the way a mental health diagnosis is determined.

“We’re doing everything we can to try to build a better system,” Panetta said at a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing. “But there are still huge gaps in terms of the differences in terms of how they approach these cases and how they diagnose the cases and how they deal with them — and frankly, that’s a whole area we have to do much better on.”

Murray’s questioning came one week after the Pentagon announced that 154 active duty military suicides have occurred this year, meaning that more soldiers have died from suicide this year than in combat.

The issue is of particular concern to Murray, who also chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, due to a series of misdiagnoses that occurred at the Madigan Army Medical Center in her home state. More than 100 soldiers originally diagnosed at the center have had their diagnoses for post-traumatic stress disorder reversed. Most said they originally were told they didn’t have PTSD.

Diagnosis of a condition like PTSD is important to soldiers and veterans because of the major impact it has on the disability benefits they can receive over their lifetimes.

Some patients in Madigan have complained that their diagnoses were lessened or altered in an effort to save money and meet Army cutbacks, Murray said. Others, according to Murray, were accused of exaggerating their conditions and subsequently denied proper medical care.

“You can’t imagine what it’s like to talk to a soldier who was told he had PTSD,” said Murray. “His family was working with him, and then when he went to the disability evaluation system, he was told he was a liar or malingerer. He was taken out of it and he went out in the civilian world not being treated. That’s a horrendous offense.”

Wednesday’s hearing addressed a range of other Pentagon issues, including the defense strategy review for fiscal year 2013 and cyberspace threats.

Panetta discussed the implications of automatic defense cuts and across-the-board reductions, known as sequestration, that would go into effect in January if Congress does not pass a plan to cut spending.

Sequestration would mean fewer troops and weapons, said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who testified with Panetta. He worried that the measure could decrease the country’s overall power and increase its vulnerability in future conflict.

During Murray’s questioning on the disability system, Panetta suggested he meet with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to discuss improvements.

“I totally appreciate your saying that to me today, but sitting down and talking with Secretary Shinseki is something we’ve been hearing for a long time,” Murray said. “We need some recommendations and we need to move forward and we need it to be a top priority out of the Pentagon as we transition now out of Afghanistan.”

Panetta admitted the system was more “bureaucratic” than he would have liked, reiterating that the Pentagon had been working to review behavioral and mental health diagnoses since 2001.

“I share all of your frustrations,” Panetta said to Murray. “My job is to make sure that we don’t come here with more excuses and that we come here with action.”

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