Phoenix VA employee alleges suicides mishandled at hospital

PHOENIX - A Phoenix VA hospital employee risks it all to speak out to ABC15.

He alleges veteran suicides are mishandled at the Carl. T. Hayden VA Medical Center.

This comes months after the VA scandal broke and whistleblowers came forward, alleging a secret list of patient wait times and widespread mismanagement at the Phoenix VA.

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Brandon Coleman has filed for whistleblower protection with the Office of Special Counsel, which means he should be protected as a federal employee for speaking out.

He said his supervisors told him he'd be fired if he came forward with his concerns.

But Coleman wants something to change, so he’s breaking the silence.

“I'm a proud veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and I choose to use the Phoenix VA for a lot of my health care,” Coleman said.

Coleman is an addiction therapist at the Phoenix VA. He helped develop a 52-week outpatient program for veterans enrolled in Veterans Court.

Coleman said 40 veterans have graduated the program and stayed sober and out of jail.

“I would work nowhere else. I believe in our mission,” Coleman said.

He beat his own addiction and survived a suicide attempt.

Now he pays it forward.

“I tell people I would do my job for free. It allows me to stay clean, which helps me be a good husband and father,” Coleman said.

But at the same time, he felt had to speak out.

Coleman said he lost six veterans to suicide in the last three years.

“It's like being punched in the gut over and over again,” he said.

In one case one of the veterans in his program relapsed.

Coleman said he went to veteran’s court and was told his next stop was jail.

“Instead the veteran decided to jump off a rooftop and commit suicide,” he said.

Another veteran even killed himself on VA property.

The VA has confirmed this with ABC15, but was not able to release any details.

“How symbolic is that as a veteran to commit suicide on VA property, and nobody knows about it?” Coleman said.

With the VA facing so much scrutiny, he said not much has changed when it comes to handling suicides.

Coleman thinks there need to be more safety checks in place.

“It's not allowed to be talked about, that's what awful is that we're not allowed to learn from it as to better ourselves,” he said.

As for why he decided to speak out—Coleman said it’s simple.

“We need to fix this. Because I'm a veteran first before I'm a VA employee.”

Coleman’s concerns echo Dr. Katherine Mitchell, a whistleblower still employed by the Phoenix VA.

She came forward months ago, calling the way the VA handles suicide and its lack of resources for the issue "atrocious."

The suicide epidemic claims the lives of 22 of our veterans every day.

RELATED: House backs bill to lower veteran suicide rate.

A spokesperson for the Phoenix VA tells ABC15 that employees are trained for suicide risk assessment and the hospital now has a social worker on duty 24-7 in the emergency room.

The Phoenix VA reports it has hired 20 psychologists since June.

If a veteran is talking about suicide, the hospital cannot let him or her leave.

And in the case of a suicide, we’re told the VA meets with employees who worked with the patient and offers them programs if they need someone to talk to.

On Monday the U.S. House approved a bill aimed at reducing a suicide epidemic.

The bill would require the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Department to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs.

It would also establish a website to provide information on mental health services available to veterans and offer financial incentives to psychiatrists who agree to work for the VA. The bill now goes to the Senate.

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