In the wake of a veteran’s death by suicide, a tragedy preceded by missed appointments due to the veteran’s service dog being denied entry to the VA hospital, the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General issued recommendations to two VA facilities to improve care for mental health patients.
One of those recommendations was to nix prohibitive service dog policies. Previously, the VA Palo Alto Healthcare System required service dogs to complete a health screening, be trained in three assistance tasks, and wear identification. But VHA’s policy does not permit facility staff to require health screenings or identification, according to the VAOIG’s report.
The report, published Sept. 23, details a case of an unidentified veteran’s death by suicide after receiving services through VA facilities in Portland, Oregon and Palo Alto, California. Though the report notes that staff made a reasonable effort to provide most aspects of mental health care to the patient, who was showing signs of suicidal ideation, it states that the facilities in question failed to meet some of the policies required by the Veterans Health Administration.
The policies that staff fell short on included providing various suicide-prevention care and mental health treatment options, and not allowing the patient’s service dog to enter the facility.
The patient was assessed as being at high risk for suicide, and objected to attending certain appointments without the service dog. The Palo Alto VA facility imposed service dog requirements that were stricter than VHA’s official service dog policy, VAOIG found. The VAOIG report states that “failure to comply with VHA animal access policy may contribute to barriers in accessing VHA services for patients with service animals.”
The patient had told the facility that the 11-year-old service dog was their only support system.
Following the investigation, VAOIG issued seven recommendations to improve training, coordination, policy, and procedures related to mental health care at both facilities. Officials at both facilities concurred on all applicable recommendations, which included developing procedures consistent with the VHA’s behavioral report procedures, improving and expediting communication of key information with both patients and leadership, and monitoring staff for compliance to VHA policies, among others.
A final recommendation pushed the Palo Alto facility to update its service dog policy to match the VHA’s, which the facility concurred with and provided a completion date of May 2021.
Veterans experiencing a mental health emergency can contact the Veteran Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and select option 1 for a VA staffer. Veterans, troops or their family members can also text 838255 or visit VeteransCrisisLine.net for assistance.