Following the suicidal death of a veteran, a tragedy preceded by missed appointments because the veteran’s service dog was denied entry to the VA Hospital, the Inspector General’s Veterans Affairs Office made recommendations to two VA facilities to improve care for Mental health patients.
One of those recommendations was to abolish prohibitive guidelines for service dogs. Prior to this, VA Palo Alto’s health system required service dogs to undergo a health check-up, be trained in three assistant duties, and wear identification. However, according to the VAOIG report, the VHA policy does not allow facility staff to require health screening or identification.
The report, released September 23, describes a case of suicide in an unidentified veteran after receiving service from VA facilities in Portland, Oregon and Palo Alto, California. Although the report finds that staff have made reasonable efforts to provide most aspects of mental health care to the patient who showed signs of suicidal ideation, it states that the facilities in question failed some of the guidelines required by the Veterans Health Administration fulfilled.
Guidelines that staff failed to follow included providing various suicide prevention and mental health management options, and preventing the patient’s service dog from entering the facility.
The patient was assessed to be highly suicidal and refused to attend certain appointments without an assistance dog. The Palo Alto, VA facility had service dog requirements that were stricter than the VHA’s official service dog policy, VAOIG noted. The VAOIG report notes that “non-compliance with the VHA Animal Access Policy may contribute to barriers to access to VHA services for patients with service animals”.
The patient had told the facility that the 11-year-old service dog was their only support system.
Following the investigation, VAOIG issued seven recommendations to improve training, coordination, policies and procedures related to mental health care in both institutions. Officials at both institutions agreed to all applicable recommendations, including developing procedures in line with the VHA’s behavior reporting procedures, improving and accelerating the communication of critical information with patients and management, and monitoring staff for compliance with VHA guidelines .
One final recommendation prompted the Palo Alto facility to adapt its service dog policy to the VHAs, to which the facility agreed and set the completion date to May 2021.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select Option 1 for a VA agent. Veterans, troops, or their family members can also write or visit 838255 VeteranenCrisisLine.net to help.
Leila has covered global military and security operations from the United States, the Middle East, and Latin America.