February 18, 2009 in City

VA withholds doctor’s record

Newspaper sought information about psychiatrist who treated suicide victims
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will not say whether the psychiatrist who attended to two veterans who killed themselves last year was involved in other cases resulting in suicide in 2008.

Finding that the “employee’s privacy interest prevails over the public interest,” the VA denied a request by The Spokesman-Review under the Freedom of Information Act to release information about Dr. William L. Brown, a psychiatrist at Spokane Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Brown attended to Lucas Senescall, a 26-year-old Navy veteran with a history of mental illness who sought help at the behavioral health department of the medical center on July 7. Senescall hanged himself within four hours of leaving the medical center.

He was one of six veterans under Spokane VA care to commit suicide last year, a marked increase in such deaths over previous years. The suicides came amid heightened concern for the mental health of soldiers and veterans nationally. Since July, the Spokane medical center has joined other VA medical facilities in strengthening protocols for identifying patients at risk of suicide.

Citing confidentiality rules, the VA would not identify the other veterans who committed suicide in 2008, but the identity of Spc. Timothy Juneman, 25, became public when his family wrote to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray about concerns with VA mental health care.

Juneman, a National Guardsman and former Stryker Brigade soldier who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, hanged himself March 5 in Pullman.

Brown attended to Juneman in early January when he was released from in-patient suicide watch at the Spokane VA, and had prescribed Juneman several medications, including antidepressant, anti-anxiety and antipsychotic drugs.

Juneman, whose body was not found until nearly three weeks after his death, had missed several medical appointments, but there was apparently no effort to contact him.

The parents of both Senescall and Juneman have raised concerns that the Spokane VA could have done more to save their sons.

“I took him to the hospital to get him help,” said Senescall’s father, Steve Senescall, on Tuesday. “My son was rocking back in forth in his chair with his hands over his mouth to keep from screaming. He needed help, and instead (Brown) kicked us out and said, ‘See you in two weeks.’ ”

Brown, who continues to work for the medical center, has declined through superiors to comment. Sharon Helman, the medical center’s director, has declined comment on whether there has been any disciplinary action as a result of any of the 2008 suicides.

In a July 18 letter, the newspaper requested information from the Spokane VA, including whether Brown was involved in the care of any of the other veterans who killed themselves in 2008. The request was denied, and the newspaper appealed to the VA office of general counsel Aug. 14.

This month, VA acting general counsel John H. Thompson denied the appeal, citing exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act that protect records, “the release of which would lead to a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

The newspaper’s request for information did not include the identities or records of the dead veterans. But Thompson also cited privacy exemptions in denying information about Brown’s involvement in any of the cases, which he said could be “taken out of context” and “could be misleading and inflammatory.”

The office of U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers did not return calls on Tuesday seeking comment about whether the psychiatrist’s privacy rights outweigh the public’s right to the information.

Murray was unavailable for comment, according to a spokesman.

Reached at Spokane VA Medical Center, Associate Director Perry Danner said, “We will let the (general counsel’s) letter stand as is.”

Kevin Graman can be reached at (509) 459-5433 or kevingr@spokesman.com.


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