"The VA healthcare system has been pushed to the edge in dealing with the mental health care needs of our veterans," Bob Filner, chairman of the House of Representatives' Committee of Veterans' Affairs, told a packed congressional hearing about the issue of suicides among veterans.
The hearing came five months after a first round of testimonials on the same topic, and weeks after a series of internal VA emails about suicides among veterans were brought to light by a documentary on US network television.
In one of the emails, sent in February, Dr Ira Katz, deputy chief patient care services officer for mental health at the VA, wrote: "Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among the veterans we see."
He added: "Is this something we should address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?"
The figure was at odds with the 144 known suicides among veterans from 2001, when the US launched its war against terror by bombing Afghanistan, through the end of 2005, which Katz had cited in his December testimony, Filner said.
"The emails ... seem to indicate they were trying to manipulate the data instead of sharing the data," Filner told AFP. "If we hadn't called this hearing, we probably still wouldn't know the figures."
"What we see is a pattern that reveals a culture of bureaucracy," he told the VA officials at the hearing.
"The pattern is deny, deny, deny and when that fails, it's cover up, cover up, cover up -- there is clear evidence of a bureaucratic cover-up here."
In his testimony for the VA, Katz apologized for the "poor tone" of the email, sent in February.
But neither he nor Secretary of Veteran Affairs James Peake, who also addressed the hearing, admitted any wrongdoing.
"VA has long subjected its own data, that of the Department of Defense, and data from nationally accepted statistical sources to careful and painstaking analysis to obtain the truth about veterans' suicide," Peake told the panel.
"On February 13, 2008, an internal email ... suggested 1,000 veterans a month under VA care were being reported as attempting suicide."
Identifying him only by title, Peake told the hearing that Katz said in the email that "he was concerned about disclosing the information" and the data was not shared with outside sources "because of his concerns."
Filner accused the VA of being unhelpful, opaque and out of control.
"If you have a document showing 1,000 suicide attempts per month, we have some real difficult issues. But you never passed us that information and you never asked us to help you, saying you had it under control," he said.
"You don't have it under control."
"The data reflects a symptom of a major problem with our veterans. Suicide is the ultimate, tragic symptom of the problem, but PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, homelessness, marital difficulties, domestic violence are also symptoms," he said.
A study published last month by the Rand Corporation, which Filner cited during the hearing, showed that of the 1.6 million US soldiers who have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, 18-20 percent -- or around 300,000 -- show PTSD, depression or both.
A separate study issued last month by the American Psychiatric Association showed that a mere 10 percent of veterans have sought treatment for mental health concerns.
Peake told reporters he would not seek the resignations of Katz or another VA doctor, Michael Kussman, who had also played down the mental health crisis among US veterans.
© 2008 Agence France Presse