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Report: VA's mental health efforts fall short now, won't keep pace in the future

WASHINGTON — Veterans Affairs officials will spend more than $7 billion and tens of thousands of hours of clinical time on mental health care this fiscal year, and that won’t be nearly enough, a new report argues.

A new policy brief from the Center for New American Security says that VA mental health efforts do not meet the needs of veterans today and are not enough to keep pace with the wave of veterans expected to hit the health care system in the next decade.

“Historically, veterans’ mental health care needs have risen sharply over time, with peak expenditures occurring 10 to 20 years after the end of war,” the report states. “This was true for the Vietnam War cohort and will likely be true for the post-9/11 combat cohort as well.

“Now is the time for the VA to act decisively to meet these generations’ needs — while it has ample resources to do so, before the demand among post-9/11 veterans spikes.”

The brief comes just a week after VA officials announced they had added more than 1,600 mental health clinicians and 800 peer counselors in the last year.

Report author Phillip Carter, senior fellow for CNAS and director of its Military, Veterans and Society Program, acknowledged that progress but argues the department is still too focused on providing mental health care through its own facilities and employees, instead of pairing that care with outside resources and contractors.

He says officials need to work on better health record sharing — not only with the Defense Department, but also private medical networks — and providing better metrics on how quickly and frequently veterans can access VA mental health care.

The report also says VA planners need to continue investing in new technologies such as online or phone-based mental health consults, noting that any expansion in access can pay huge dividends.

“Treatment clearly makes a difference for veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war,” Carter wrote. “Those receiving treatment do better in managing their post-traumatic stress or traumatic brain injury and are less likely to commit suicide.”

In a statement prior to the report announcing the new mental health hires, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the department has made “strong progress to expand Veterans’ access to quality mental health services” but added that more more still needs to be done.

The CNAS report is available on their website.

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane

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