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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs does not have the resources to handle the expected posttraumatic stress disorder cases from Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

VA officials quickly dismissed the findings, noting that so far they have treated more than 6,400 veterans for those mental health issues, and more than 244,000 veterans in the agency’s history.

But health experts said if the report is right, thousands of current soldiers could find themselves with no way to deal with serious emotional and psychological problems in the near future.

“We have given a lot of attention to the physical side of recovery, but very little to the emotional fallout these soldiers might face,” said Dr. Mark Lerner, president of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. “We have to increase awareness, because this could take months or years to show up.”

A 2004 study by defense officials of Army and Marine troops in Iraq indicated that between 15 percent and 17 percent of those servicemembers showed signs of depression, anxiety or PTSD-related problems.

The GAO report notes that as of September 2004, officials at six of seven medical centers surveyed said they likely could not handle an increased demand in PTSD services, and fewer than half of patients treated last year were screened for PTSD-related issues.

It also called the agency’s estimation of its PTSD resources “error-prone and inadequately supported” and said the department doesn’t have the capacity to handle the current numbers of veterans with such problems.

VA spokeswoman Karen Fedele said the report ignores current data and changes made within the department.

“We welcome any evaluation of our programs; we ask only that accuracy guide the process,” she said.

Veterans Affairs officials estimate that about 2,700 retired servicemembers were treated for PTSD and related problems in 2004 alone.

New Defense Department guidelines mandate psychological counseling for soldiers immediately before and after deployment to a combat zone, and a third counseling session three to five months after deployment. These evaluations will be handled by DOD, however.

Officials said the goal is to better identify mental health issues, some of which can take months or years to manifest.


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