VA lacks resources to deal with mental health, survey finds

October 4, 2011

A survey of social workers, nurses and doctors working for the Department of Veterans Affairs finds that more than 70 percent of respondents think the department lacks the staff and space to meet the needs of growing numbers of veterans seeking mental health care.

More than 37 percent of the 272 respondents say they cannot schedule an appointment in their clinics for a new patient within the 14-day standard mandated by the department, according to the survey, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

The survey was requested by the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs after a hearing this summer at which veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues described long waits for treatment that could raise the risk of suicide. On average, 18 veterans commit suicide every day, according to the VA.

“The sad truth is that veterans who call to get a VA appointment have at least made the decision to reach out to VA for help,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the committee, wrote in a letter sent Monday to the VA. “That is the critical step in accessing care, and it is not acceptable to have veterans, who have stepped up and shown the courage to ask for help, be denied that care.”

The VA, describing the survey results as preliminary, noted that it was done quickly in response to the committee’s request, and that the “survey methodology” might have been different given more time.

But Murray called the results “very troubling” and said the VA must take immediate action.

“I remain very concerned that the Department is going to delay other action for more than a year in order to conduct focus groups,” Murray wrote. “While I understand the Department has concerns that this survey is not comprehensive, after the countless Inspector General reports, [Government Accountability Office] reports, hearings, public laws, conferences, and stories from veterans and clinicians in the field, it is time to act.”

The VA “is taking the findings of this query seriously and is working to better understand where service gaps exist,” according to an executive summary of the study prepared by the department Sept. 9.

Last year, more than 1.2 millionveterans were treated by the VA for a mental health problem, including 408,000 with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. By comparison, 934,000 were treated for mental health problems four years earlier.

The VA noted that the survey results contradict the department’s own waiting-time data showing that more than 96 percent of new patients were able to be seen within 14 days. In examining this “discrepancy,” the VA report noted that respondents to the survey described being unable to provide the type of mental health care needed by the patient. Others described a lack of critical support staff needed for the patients, such as a case manager.

Among caregivers who report a lack of adequate staff, more than half attribute the shortage to increased numbers of veterans seeking health care, while one-third say the problem results from unfilled vacancies.

Veterans need off-hour appointments during evenings or weekends, according to survey respondents.

The VA has hired more than 3,500 mental health professionals in recent years and has a staff of almost 21,000, a 47 percent increase from five years ago.

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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