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Critics: Overloaded VA should seek outside help for mental health care

WASHINGTON — Even with thousands of new veterans clamoring for mental health care each month, Veterans Affairs leaders haven’t yet found ways to speed up appointment scheduling and appear unwilling to partner with outside counselors, critics say.

The charges, leveled by mental health experts and irritated lawmakers at a Senate Veterans Affairs committee hearing Wednesday, came as the department released new data showing that the number of veterans seeking mental health help jumped by more than 300,000 in recent years.

That translates into more than 1.2 million veterans currently receiving mental health services, and likely tens of thousands more who will seek similar assistance the years to come.

“As thousands of veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, you can see the number of PTSD appointments steadily rise each quarter,” said committee chairwoman Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. “This problem isn’t going anywhere.”

According to a USA Today analysis of data, 10,000 veterans sought help for post-traumatic stress disorder at VA hospitals every three months this year. Since the Iraq and Afghanistan wars began, more than 200,000 combat veterans from those fights have been treated for the disorder, roughly 16 percent of the 1.3 million troops who fought there.

VA officials said they have made significant progress in helping those veterans, hiring thousands more counselors and setting goals of getting new patients into treatment within 14 days.

Dr. Michelle Washington, PTSD coordinator at the VA medical center in Wilmington, Del., said effective mental health treatment often requires weekly visits, but veterans rarely can schedule more than one session a month because of the demand on the department’s mental health professionals.

Scheduled appointments for returning patients are routinely bumped for new ones, she said. Long waits and frustrating rescheduling can scare away mentally unstable patients from seeking further help, or send them into an even worse state.

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Defense Department officials have worked to supplement their mental health care offerings by partnering with outside groups like Give An Hour, which provides free psychiatric counseling to veterans through private practices. But Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of that charity, said VA officials have not been open to similar outreach efforts.

John Roberts, vice president at the Wounded Warrior Project, said a recent survey of his group’s members found that one-third of veterans who sought mental health services through the department either could not schedule appropriate appointments or gave up trying. But he said officials still seem insistent on finding internal solutions to the issue, rather than allowing veterans to seek private practice help.

“They’re still so short-staffed,” he said, “it’s like trying to put a band-aid on an amputation.”

Dr. Mary Schohn, director of mental health operations at the Veterans Health Administration, said officials are committed to finding solutions and reducing those wait times. Leaders have established a new policy group to look at appointment flexibility issues, new staffing models and better reporting of wait-time data.

But lawmakers said that work should have been completed years ago, before the problem grew to unacceptable levels.

“We promised these veterans that we would take care of them when they came home,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C. “Then we’re sticking them in a system where they’re the first ones to lose confidence in it.”

The hearing was the latest in a yearlong series by the committee on mental health issues and VA care. Murray said the committee will continue that work into next year.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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