VA Staffer To Testify Over PTSD E-Mail

By: by CBS News producer Pia Malbran
By: by CBS News producer Pia Malbran

WASHINGTON (CBS) A Veterans Affairs clinic coordinator is to face questions from lawmakers keen to determine whether a controversial e-mail she sent was simply misguided advice from an individual, or part of a widespread effort by the VA to avoid paying veterans benefits for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

CBS News has learned that Norma J. Perez, the former coordinator of the PTSD program at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Temple, Texas, will go before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs Wednesday morning in Washington.

On March 20, she sent an e-mail to the psychologists and social workers who were under her supervision at the VA's PTSD clinic in Temple. In it, Perez wrote: "Given that we are having more and more compensation seeking veterans, I'd like to suggest you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out."

She went on to recommend that clinicians instead "consider a diagnosis of Adjustment Disorder."

"It is outrageous that the VA is calling on its employees to deliberately misdiagnose returning veterans in an effort to cut costs," said Melanie Sloan, the executive director of the Washington-based watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, which obtained and distributed the internal e-mail last month, along with the veterans lobbying group VoteVets.org. (Click here to see the email.)

As soon as the e-mail became public, VA Secretary James Peake blasted it, calling it "inappropriate."

In a statement, Peake said the e-mail was isolated and that the VA is "committed to absolute accuracy in a diagnosis and unwavering in providing any and all earned benefits."

The e-mail sparked furor among both Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders, who've pushed for an investigation.

Lawmakers want to make sure PTSD is being properly diagnosed at every VA facility - and ensure Perez was not taking direction from higher management. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama also weighed in, calling for the VA's inspector general to look into the issue.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, a Democrat from Hawaii and the Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, described the e-mail as, "disturbing and disappointing." He said he hoped Wednesday's hearing would provide more answers on, "how VA is dealing with PTSD," so that all veterans truly get the health care and benefits they need.

Perez, who is not a licensed psychologist, was recently reassigned and now works at the VA hospital in Austin, Texas, as a "Mental Health Integration Specialist."

She will testify alongside the VA's Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Michael Kussman, and Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's head of mental health. Earlier this year, several senators and congressmen called for Dr. Katz's resignation after internal e-mails showed he withheld critical information about veteran suicides from the public. Dr. Katz apologized for the e-mails. He continues to oversee mental health for the VA.

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