Vets have been saying for years that mental-health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs has been inadequate. Lawmakers have echoed that refrain. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled vets’ access to mental-health care was poor enough to make it unconstitutional.
On Monday, the VA finally agreed. Of course, it was the VA’s resident pain-in-the-neck – the inspector general’s office – that reach that conclusion in a 54-page report. The VA’s top health official didn’t argue with the findings.
“The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is unequivocally committed to providing the best care possible for Veterans and will act rapidly on all findings that may improve Veterans’ access to mental health care,” Dr. Robert Petzel wrote to the IG. Last week, in anticipation of this report, the VA announced it was boosting its mental-health workforce by 1,900 people, roughly 10%.
But that, alas, is basically baloney. The VA’s budget has more than doubled in less than a decade, from $62 billion in 2004 to $140 billion being sought for next year. Yet the problems persist. The VA is full of good people (most of them, anyway), but they can only do so much with the resources the nation gives them.
“This report confirms what we have long been hearing, that our veterans are waiting far too long to get the mental health care they so desperately need,” Senator Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman of the veterans committee, said in response to the IG’s findings. “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.”
The VA has been saying it provides 95% of vets seeking mental-health care with a full screening within its 14-day goal, but the IG estimates 49% wait 50 days before getting such treatment.
The VA “does not have a reliable and accurate method of determining whether they are providing patients timely access to mental health care services,” the IG concluded. “VHA did not provide first-time patients with timely mental health evaluations and existing patients often waited more than 14 days past their desired date of care for their treatment appointment.”
Inconsistent record-keeping has led to some wonderful (if true) findings, the IG reports:
The IG also noted that 71% of VA mental-health professionals believe their facility doesn’t have enough staff to tend to their mental-health patients. Three of the four sites visited by the IG had psychiatric vacancies.
The VA says it is doing its best. “At VA, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning Veterans,” the agency said after the release of the IG report. “We have made strong progress, but we need to do more.”