VA falls short on mental health care

Seven out of 10 Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities lack the staff to adequately handle the mental health-care needs of veterans.

This statistic, cited by VA’s own Inspector General’s (IG) office, was one of the more disturbing facts mulled over at a Nov. 30 hearing by the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee (SVAC): “VA Mental Health Care: Addressing Wait Times and Access to Care.”

At a previous SVAC hearing on July 14, committee chair Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., had requested a survey of the VA health-care system by the IG office – the results of which have raised troubling concerns. The IG reported that 40 percent of VA health-care providers could not schedule patient appointments within their own timeline of two weeks.

“This two-week timeline was brought up several times,” said American Legion Legislative Division Director Tim Tetz, who attended the Nov. 30 hearing. “What became quite contentious was that VA may actually schedule a processing appointment within two weeks – filling out forms and getting info on current medications – but then veterans have to wait weeks or months before they actually sit down with a doctor or nurse.”

Tetz said that some VA facilities consider processing appointments to be valid indicators that they are complying with the two-week timeline. But he also noted that, during the hearing, VA representatives agreed that such a practice does not meet the two-week timeline requirement – but they have no effective way of monitoring the practice.

The IG also reported that 46 percent of the VA facilities covered in its survey did not provide veterans adequate access to health care, due to the lack of appointments being scheduled outside of standard working hours.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., and the committee’s ranking member, called the state of affairs documented in the IG report as “unacceptable,” and called on VA to account for what it had done with its funding for mental health care, which has increased 126 percent since fiscal 2006.

Panelists at the hearing included Dr. Michelle Washington, post-traumatic stress (PTS) coordinator at VA’s medical center in Wilmington, Del.; John Roberts, executive vice president of the Wounded Warrior Project; and Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen of the charitable “Give an Hour” organization, which coordinates donated time from mental health-care providers for veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“These panelists generally painted a picture of an understaffed VA that cannot meet appointment needs for basic mental health-care treatment,” Tetz said. “The No. 1 problem seems to be the lack of timely access to actual health-care providers, something that is critically important in treating PTS.”

Other VA panelists at the hearing, according to Tetz, told the committee that the department’s mental-health staffing has increased more than 50 percent since 2006, and that procedures in place should be preventing the problems quantified in the IG report.

“Burr recognized the key disconnect between written policy as prescribed by VA’s Central Office, and what its facilities are able to implement in the field,” said Ian de Planque, the Legion’s Legislative Division deputy director who also attended the hearing. “In general, the committee members expressed frustration with the standard response to problems being the creation of a task force for study, rather than implementing specific fixes.”

De Planque said the VA panelists agreed the deficiencies revealed in the IG report were unacceptable and would continue working toward improving their mental health-care system.

“And The American Legion will be right there with them, evaluating VA facilities every year, identifying problems, offering solutions and noting progress,” de Planque said. “Despite some serious problems described in the IG report, we know that VA is committed to giving our veterans the best care available.”