The Department of Veterans Affairs has greatly overstated how quickly it provides mental health care for veterans, according to an inspector general’s report released Monday.
Contrary to the VA’s claim that 95 percent of first-time patients seeking mental health care in 2011 received an evaluation within the department’s goal of 14 days, just under half were actually seen in that time frame, the report found. The majority waited about 50 days on average for a full evaluation.
Similarly, the VA’s claim that 95 percent of new patients in 2011 got appointments to begin treatment within 14 days of their desired date was also far off the mark; the report from the VA’s Office of Inspector General estimated that only 64 percent of patients received treatment in that time, while the rest waited on average 40 days.
The inflated claims, made in the VA’s fiscal year 2011 performance and accountability report, come while the department faces unprecedented demand for mental health services, as thousands of veterans return from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health issues often face lengthy waits for treatment that leave them at risk of suicide, according to congressional testimony last year.
On Thursday, the VA announced that it will hire 1,900 mental health workers, an increase of more than 9 percent.
Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), who is chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and requested the report, said the results are “deeply disturbing and demands action from the VA. This report shows the huge gulf between the time VA says it takes to get veterans mental health care and the reality of how long it actually takes veterans to get seen at facilities across the country.”
“We have made strong progress, but we need to do more,” the VA said in a statement released Monday afternoon.
The inspector general’s report concluded that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which runs the VA’s medical care, lacks any accurate method of measuring how long veterans wait for mental health care.
The data on whether new patients were seen within the desired time was often based on available appointments, rather than the patient’s clinical needs. If the patient was given an appointment two months later because of a lack of openings, the veteran would still be recorded as having been seen within two weeks of the desired date.
The report recommends that the VA revise its measurements to reflect the time veterans actually wait for mental health care, and that the VA study its staffing levels to see if mental health staff vacancies represent a systemic problem.
Robert Petzel, the VA’s under secretary for health, concurred with the reports findings and recommendations and said that VHA would move quickly to make changes.