The death of a Colorado Springs Marine profiled in Sunday's Gazette has prompted a measure before Congress that mandates an outside investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs handling of suicidal patients.
Aurora Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman said his measure would require the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine review veterans' deaths within the last five years related to drug overdoses or suicide.
"I'm still haunted by the situation with Noah Harter," Coffman told The Gazette on Tuesday.
Harter, 25, died in 2015 after visiting VA's Floyd K. Lindstrom Clinic in Colorado Springs for depression and "suicidal ideation." Although VA identified Harter as a high risk suicidal patient, he was sent home after the visit with a powerful anti-depressant and no scheduled follow-up appointments.
VA blamed the fatal lack of follow-up on a scheduling software glitch.
Coffman said the VA is over-reliant on drugs to treat mental illness and lax in its follow-up, which he said contributed to Harter's death.
"I think there are a lot more tragedies like Noah Harter out there," he said.
The congressman's bill is off to a strong start, with bi-partisan support in the House and backing from Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain in the upper chamber.
In its most recent statistics, VA says 20 veterans die by suicide every day, including six who had received VA services.
A Marine veteran, Coffman is all too familiar with the invisible wounds of war. After serving in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the congressman said he came home to feelings he'd never experienced before.
"It was the emptiest feeling I have ever felt in my entire life," he said.
Coffman has led an effort this year to reform VA, backing bills that increased veteran access to private care, encouraged stronger discipline in the agency's ranks and covered mental health care for all combat veterans regardless of their discharge status.
He's spent more than a year studying Noah Harter's death.
Harter, a graduate of Rampart High School, left the Marines in 2011. He was attending the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and looking forward to a career in business.
But the nearly 300 combat missions he had served in Iraq and Afghanistan left him battling post-traumatic stress, depression and insomnia.
Coffman said Harter's courage in admitting his struggle and seeking VA care is notable.
"He had to be in a bad situation to go in there and ask for help," he said.
The VA completed, but will not release an internal review of Harter's death. Coffman, through the House VA, ordered a congressional investigation, but the agency hasn't been cooperative, he said.
VA is pushing against Coffman's measure to get an outside probe of suicides and overdose deaths.
"The VA is saying it is unnecessary," Coffman said.
Representatives of the agency told Coffman they have conducted exhaustive suicide studies already and the external probe would just pile more paperwork on the problem. Coffman remains suspicious.
"If they are aware of it why haven't they changed their practices?" he asked.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240