Hearing: Veterans wait too long for mental health services

July 14, 2011

Veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues often face “unconscionable” waits for treatment that leave them at risk of suicide, according to testimony at a Senate hearing Thursday and new reports from the Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general.

The reports come as VA faces unprecedented demand for mental health services from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 202,000 veterans from those conflicts have been seen for potential PTSD at VA facilities through March 31, according to data released Wednesday. This is an increase of 10,000 veterans from the last quarterly report.

Retired Army Spec. Daniel Williams, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq from a makeshift bomb that also left him with PTSD, told the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs Thursday that when he tried to reschedule an appointment to enable him to testify, he was told he would have to wait four months for a new date.

“I’m sorry not only do I have to go through this, but many of my fellow soldiers have to as well,” said Williams, who served with the 4th Infantry Division. He testified that he attempted suicide in 2004 after being unable to get psychiatric help but was saved when his gun misfired.

Williams, a resident of Homewood, Ala., described continued struggles battling red tape, waiting for appointments and trying to get attention at VA facilities. “It literally takes my wife nearly getting arrested by VA police,” he said.

“The VA system makes you want to give up and try something else,” added Williams, who testified on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Andrea Sawyer’s husband, retired Army Sgt. Loyd Sawyer, served on a mortuary affairs team in Iraq, where he processed many dead service members and civilians.

Upon his return in 2007, she testified, “I listened to his plans to slit his throat.” Nonetheless, it took months navigating his care through the VA bureaucracy, she said, and added that it remains a round-the-clock effort.

“I gave up my job in order to keep him alive,” said Sawyer, representing the veterans advocacy group Wounded Warrior Project. “That’s what I had to do.”

George Arana, VA’s acting assistant deputy undersecretary for clinical operations and management, apologized to Williams and Sawyer at the hearing. “These stories are just unacceptable,” Arana said.

“Any veteran who needs mental health services must be able to get that care rapidly and as close to home as possible,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the committee.

VA’s Office of Inspector General reported this week that several VA mental health clinics in Atlanta were found to have unacceptably high patient wait times. Some patients on an electronic waiting list attempted suicide, were hospitalized or went to the emergency department, according to the report.

The report said that facility managers were aware of long wait lists for mental health care but were slow to respond to the problem.

“We were not as quick as we should have been,” William Schoenhard, VA’s deputy undersecretary for health for operations and management, told the committee.

The report noted that VA tracks only the time it takes for new patients to get their first appointment. “This is simply unacceptable and must change,” Murray said.

Steve Vogel is a reporter for the national staff of The Washington Post who covers the federal government and frequently writes about the military and veterans.
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