Metro-East News

Kirk calls for firing of VA mental health official over unanswered vets’ calls for help

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk AP

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., issued a call for the immediate firing of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs official overseeing mental health operations because of glitches that allowed troubled veterans’ crisis hotline calls to go to voicemail and not receive answers.

By Tuesday, however, Kirk had dropped his demand for the discharge of Dr. Mary Schohn, the agency’s mental health director.

The reason? Kirk had been informed that Schohn had left the VA in 2014.

But Kirk, the chairman of the Senate panel that oversees VA funding, was hardly mollified by news of Schohn’s departure. Kirk called for the firing of Schohn’s successor, which, at press time, was difficult to pin down.

“The culture of corruption at the VA means consistently protecting those responsible for failing our vets and the taxpayers,” according to a statement a Kirk spokesman issued Tuesday afternoon. “Every person who oversaw the hotline for the past nine years should be fired because the GAO and VA OIG have repeatedly noted the crisis line’s failure.”

In a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald on Monday, Kirk had demanded that Schohn be terminated and suggested she be replaced with an official from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), a federal agency that administers a suicide hotline.

Kirk wrote in the letter that for “several years, media reports have also highlighted problems in the program, all under the direction of Dr. Mary Schohn. A video posted online in 2014 shows a veteran who called the hotline on hold for more than 35 minutes.”

The VA did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment.

Kirk reminded McDonald of a letter the agency director had received from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that raised concerns “that his constituents were being placed on hold repeatedly when they sought help” through the veterans crisis hotline.

To bolster his case further, Kirk quoted from a 2010 VA inspector general report that found that 1.26 million out of 7.41 million call attempts to the VA’s eight call centers were blocked via a busy signal.

“You’ve often stated that you are changing the culture at the VA,” Kirk wrote. “There can be no higher order within the VA than taking seriously the suicide rates of our service men and women when they return from the battlefield.”

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000