VA Mental Health Spending Is Faulted

By Suzanne Gamboa
Associated Press
Friday, December 8, 2006

The Department of Veterans Affairs did not spend all of the extra $300 million it budgeted to increase mental health services and failed to keep track of how some of the money was used, a government report says.

VA launched a plan in 2004 to improve its mental health services for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance-abuse problems. To fill gaps in services, the department added $100 million for mental health initiatives in 2005 and $200 million in 2006. That money was to be distributed to its regional networks of hospitals, medical centers and clinics for new services.

But VA fell short of the spending, by $12 million in 2005 and about $42 million in fiscal 2006, said the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

It distributed $35 million in 2005 to its 21 health-care networks but did not inform the networks that the money was supposed to be used for mental health initiatives. In fiscal 2006, VA medical centers returned $46 million to headquarters because they couldn't spend it.

In addition, VA cannot determine to what extent about $112 million was spent on mental health services improvements or new services in 2006.

VA reported in September that more than a third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought medical treatment from the agency in the previous 18 months reported symptoms of stress or other mental disorders.

Longer and multiple deployments, unpredictable daily attacks and roadside bombings, and efforts to reduce the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorder have been cited as reasons for the increased reports.

VA said at the time that it had increased funding for mental health services and hired 100 more counselors and thus was not overwhelmed by the rising demand.

Agency spokesman Matt Burns said in a statement that the GAO looked at the agency's Mental Health Strategic Plan as an accounting exercise. "In contrast, VA's emphasis has been on building mental health care capacity and high quality programs to support and treat veterans. VA expends resources for programs that meet these criteria," Burns said.

He said VA has taken steps to make sure mental health money is used for its intended purpose.

The money is only a portion of what VA spends on mental health; it planned to spend about $2 billion on mental health services in fiscal 2006. But the additional spending from existing funds was trumpeted by the agency as a way to eliminate gaps in mental health services now and those that would be needed in the future.

"While we are at war, we do have to make sure we spend the resources that are allocated for our veterans," said Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs health subcommittee.

He said he thinks VA is overwhelmed. Along with the increased reports of mental stress from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Vietnam veterans are experiencing flashbacks and recurrences of combat stress problems because of the ongoing wars, he said.

Democrats have said that when they take over Congress next year, they want to increase funding for veterans' health care, in particular mental health counseling for returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets. They also have said they want to increase the department's oversight and get detailed budget accounting from VA.

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