VA mental health system puts numbers ahead of helping vets, according to testimony

”Vogel”

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ mental health care system suffers from a culture where more importance is given to meeting meaningless performance goals than actually helping veterans, a former mental health administrator said in his testimony before a Senate committee Wednesday.

The administrator, who worked at the VA medical center in Manchester, N.H., said managers pressed the staff to develop ways to see as many veterans as possible while providing the most minimal mental health services possible.

“The plan that was ultimately developed gamed the system so that the facility met performance requirements but utterly failed our veterans,” said Nicholas Tolentino, a former Navy corpsman who went to work at the Manchester facility in 2009.

One manager’s directions to the staff was to focus only on the immediate reason for an appointment and not to ask the veteran about any other problems, because “we don’t want to know or we’ll have to treat it,” according to Tolentino.

The hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs followed the release of an inspector general’s report Monday that found the VA has greatly overstated how quickly it provides mental-health care for veterans.

“They need a culture change,” Linda Halliday, the VA’s assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations, told the committee. “They need to hold facility directors accountable for integrity of the data.”

“VA is failing to meet its own mandates for timeliness, and instead is finding ways to make the data look like they are complying,” said the chairman of the committee, Senator Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), who requested the report.

“We fully embrace that our performance measures need to be revised,” William Schoenhard, deputy under secretary for health for operations and management, told the committee.

Under pressure to reduce waiting times for veterans, the VA announced last week that it plans to hire 1,900 mental health workers, an increase of more than 9 percent.

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