A stinging report released Monday by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) revealed what many Veterans have long been saying – VA isn’t providing Veterans with mental health care quickly enough.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said “Getting our veterans timely mental health care can quite frankly often be the difference between life and death.”
According to VA statistics, 18 Veterans commit suicide every day. Approximately one quarter of these Veterans are enrolled in the VA health care system; an additional 1,000 Veterans receiving VA care attempt suicide each month. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury are serious conditions impacting hundreds of thousands of veterans.
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee requested the audit an held a hearing about the findings Wednesday. Sen. Murray emphasized the problem is with the “system at large,” and not with the mental health professionals who actually treat Veterans.
Murray said VA staff, “choose to work harder than most of their peers, often for less lucrative benefits, all because they believe in what they do, and because they have a deep and unshaking commitment to our veterans.”
Veterans wait months for needed mental health treatment
According to Veterans Health Administration (VHA) requirements, every Veteran who requests mental health treatment is required to receive an initial assessment within 24 hours and a full mental health assessment within 14 days. VA claimed in 2011 that the agency met the goal 95 percent of the time. However, OIG revealed VHA met the goal 49 percent of the time. OIG reported VHA takes about 50 days to evaluate Veterans (see graph).
Appeals Court declares long waits impede on a Veteran’s constitutional rights
The issue of delays both in treatment and disability claims decisions is not a new problem. In May 2011, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals took the unprecedented step of stepping into the fray. The Court ruled in Veterans for Common Sense v. Shinseki that long waits for mental health care violate a Veteran’s right to due process. On Tuesday, The New York Times admonished VA on their editorial page.
Chronic staff shortages blamed
OIG placed some of the blame on what appears to be chronic staff shortages in VA mental health facilities.
According to the report, “from 2005 to 2010, mental health services increased their staff by 46 percent and treated 39 percent more patients. Despite the increase in mental health care providers, VHA’s mental health care service staff still did not believe they have enough staff to handle the increased workload and consistently see patients within 14 days of the desired date.”
According to a survey of VA mental health professionals released last fall, 70 percent of respondents said they think VA lacks the staff and resources to effectively care for the growing numbers of Veterans needing mental health treatment.
VA hires staff to deal with delays
The day after the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee slammed VA for the agency’s 1.1 million claims backlog, VA announced it will hire an additional 1,900 mental health staff – including 1,600 nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers.
“As the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning Veterans,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement. “History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended. As more Veterans return home, we must ensure that all Veterans have access to quality mental health care.”
Hiring more staff is a step in the right direction, but, given the reports of staff shortages, the effect of this latest round of hiring may be too little. We wonder how many veterans died or were evicted from their homes while VA delayed care and benefits? And who at VA will be held accountable for these systemic problems?