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Veterans forced to wait for care?

December 7, 2011
by Nick Zubko, Associate Editor
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Senate hearing questions VA on barriers to more immediate access

Last week, leaders of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held another hearing that questioned the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on its waiting times for veterans to receive mental healthcare. In the previous hearing held on July 14, the committee requested the VA to survey its frontline mental health professionals about whether they have sufficient resources to get veterans into treatment.

The results of the survey were enlightening. It showed that 70 percent of providers said they did not have adequate staff or space to meet the mental healthcare needs of veterans, and 46 percent said the lack of off-hour appointments prevented veterans from accessing care. Almost 40 percent said they cannot schedule an appointment in their own clinic within the VA mandated 14-day window.

According to the committee’s chairman, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the survey captured the frustration of those tasked with caring for veterans, as well as provided a glimpse at a VA system that is “still not fully equipped” for the influx of veterans seeking care. “The VA can and must do much better,” Murray said. “Especially at a time when we are seeing record suicides among our veterans— we need to meet the veteran’s desire for care with the immediate assurance that it will be provided— and provided quickly.”

The committee heard testimony from providers about the challenges they face in getting patients into care—including from Dr. Michelle Washington, Coordinator, PTSD Services and Evidence Based Psychotherapy, Wilmington, Del., VA Medical Center, who was representing the American Federation of Government Employees. Dr. Washington spoke to the daily frontline barriers she and fellow VA mental health providers encounter at our VA facilities.

Additional testimony was given by:

  • Mary Schohn, PhD, Director, Mental Health Operations, Veterans Health Administration, Department of Veterans Affairs
  • Charles W. Hoge, MD, Col. U.S. Army (Ret.)
  • Barbara Van Dahlen, PhD, Founder and President, Give an Hour
  • John Roberts, Executive Vice President, Mental Health and Warrior Engagement, Wounded Warrior Project

This week, Murray and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the committee’s ranking member, wrote a letter to the VA’s inspector general, George Opfer, asking the department to begin a formal audit of mental healthcare wait times. The hope is to determine how accurately wait times for mental health services are recorded, for both the initial visits and the follow-up appointments, and whether the data the VA collects represent an accurate depiction of veterans’ ability to access services.

“We can’t afford to leave [our veterans] discouraged that they can’t find an appointment,” said Murray. “The VA has had a decade to prepare. The demand for care will only swell. And it should not cause the waiting line … to grow.”

For a more detailed account of the hearing, click here. The video below offers coverage of the hearing in its entirety (be sure to skip to the 12-minute mark). If for some reason the video doesn't play, click here.