After hearing testimony about the continued long waits faced by veterans seeking mental health care, a Senate committee Wednesday called for an investigation of the problem and an audit of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ $5.7 billion mental health care budget.

“Especially at a time when we are seeing record suicides among our veterans — we need to meet the veteran’s desire for care with the immediate assurance that it will be provided — and provided quickly,” said Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, who asked the VA’s Office of Inspector General to examine the issue.

The action came after Michelle Washington, director of post-traumatic stress disorder services at the Wilmington VA Medical Center in Delaware, testified that facility managers are spending time “gaming” the system to meet goal numbers rather than providing needed mental health care for veterans.

Washington testified that all psychologists at the center have been directed to see four new patients a week to meet the VA’s goal that all veterans seeking mental health care be fully evaluated within 14 days.

The scheduling is done “by clerks pressured by management to make the system look good,” Washington said.

But Washington said that no provision has been made for follow-up care, meaning that patients have to wait four to six weeks for follow-up appointments. Returning patients often have their appointments moved back to make room for new ones, she said.

The long waits often end up frustrating and scaring off veterans who have made the decision to seek help, she said.

Moreover, Washington said, the initial visit is often little more than an administrative meeting to gather information rather than a medical evaluation.

Murray asked Mary Schohn, director of mental health operations for the VA’s Veterans Health Administration, whether VA facilities are “gaming the system.”

Schohn responded that the VA “does not condone gaming of any kind” and regularly audits its facilities, and that she was unaware of any such problems.

Since 2006, the VA has seen a 34 percent increase in the number of veterans seeking mental health services, reaching more than 1.2 million in 2010. In that time, Schohn noted, mental health staff levels have increased by 47.8 percent, and the VA has made “marked improvements” in its services.

“We take very seriously this committee’s concerns regarding needed improvements,” Schohn said.

Washington, who was testifying on behalf of the American Federation of Government Employees, said she received little response when she brought her concerns to managers. “They tell me they’re working on it,” she said. “Sometimes there’s flat-out denial there’s a problem.”