Vets, report: VA care hard to get for mental health

Navy veteran Dean Maiers, left, testifies during a Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015. Maiers said if it wasn't for the help he received from a Comprehensive Work Therapy program in Connecticut, "I would never have gotten back on track."


By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 29, 2015

This story has been updated.

WASHINGTON — Navy veteran Dean Maiers broke down in tears Wednesday afternoon as he told a panel of senators about his post-deployment struggles, which included a suicide attempt.

Speaking to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, the Iraq and Afghanistan veteran said the VA treatment that he finally received saved his life, though the health system’s narrow appointment schedule made it difficult for him to find time to get help.

“It’s hard working a full-time job and scheduling your life around the VA,” Maiers said.

The hearing came on the heels of a Government Accountability Office report that found VA officials are using two different wait-time standards for veterans seeking mental health evaluations and could be underestimating how long it takes to schedule those appointments because they lack consistent data.

The report was released Wednesday and dovetailed with the Senate committee’s hearing on veterans’ mental health, at which veterans talked about their continued struggles to get help from the VA.

Former Marine Nicholas Karnaze, who served two tours in Afghanistan, said it took him one year to enroll in the VA system. When he did seek mental health care, he said he was bounced to two different phone numbers that both ended in voicemail. He didn’t get a call back.

“Some of my friends have given up hope (and paid for private care),” Karnaze told the committee. “I, and many veterans like me, don’t have that luxury — I’m a small business owner and at this time, I can’t afford private health care.”

Some VA officials are following a policy that states veterans must receive mental health evaluations within 14 days of their requests while others believe the deadline is 30 days. The Veterans Health Administration has not stated which policy is correct, according to the report.

Drawing a parallel to the ­secret-wait-list scandal in Phoenix that sparked an ongoing, year-and-a-half-long scandal in veterans’ care, GAO Health Care Director Debra Draper said the VA tracked some appointments using a manually maintained list outside of the Veterans Health Administration scheduling system. In Phoenix, some appointments were kept off the books to make wait times appear shorter and a number of patients died while languishing on the hidden wait lists for years.

The current system means VA medical centers might implement appointments inconsistently, “potentially posing serious risks to veterans needing mental health care,” the report states.

VA officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said he is “appalled” at the continued barriers to veterans receiving mental health care.

“There’s not a topic in my view that is more important than mental health for our veterans,” he said. “As in the civilian world, mental health is often overlooked, given less attention than it should be.”

President Barack Obama issued an executive order in 2012 directing the secretaries of the VA, Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, Education, and Homeland Security to take steps to improve mental health care for veterans as well as active-duty, Guard and Reserve troops. The order, which preceded the revelations of the current veterans’ health care crisis, also created the Military and Veterans Mental Health Interagency Task Force.

The recommendations in the GAO report include that the Veterans Health Administration should clarify the maximum allowable wait times for veterans to receive a mental health evaluation, VA Secretary Bob McDonald should set policy for how appointment scheduling should be managed, and the VA undersecretary for health should set standards on how VA medical centers calculate wait times.

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Marine veteran Nicholas Karnaze makes a point while testifying before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Karnaze said he sought mental health care in the fall of 2014 to discuss concentration and memory issues and was subsequently prescribed medication which sent him spiraling down into depression.

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