By Kevin Freking Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Federal investigators reported Monday that nearly half of the veterans who seek mental health care for the first time waited about 50 days before receiving a full evaluation, a much longer lag-time than the Department of Veterans Affairs has been reporting.
The VA has been saying that 95 percent of new patients seeking mental health treatment get a full evaluation within the department’s goal of 14 days. But an inspector general’s report obtained by The Associated Press said that the department’s tracking is flawed and that the VA was overstating its success when it comes to how quickly veterans get care.
The department has greatly beefed up staffing in recent years, but the report also confirmed that many of the VA’s doctors and other medical officials don’t believe they have the manpower necessary to handle the ever-growing veteran caseload.
“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,” said Sen. Patty Murray, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “It is deeply disturbing and demands action from the VA.”
The report comes just days after the administration announced it was increasing its staff of mental health workers by roughly 1,900. The department has been adding staff at a brisk pace in recent years. Staffing is up 45 percent since 2005, but the increase in patients has gone up by almost that amount.
In response to the report, the department released a statement saying that it was committed to ensuring that veterans had access to quality mental health care and that it would review the IG’s findings.
“We have made strong progress, but we need to do more,” the statement read.
Doctors and other mental health staff told investigators that they’re particularly having trouble hiring and retaining psychiatrists. Investigators visited four medical centers. At a medical center in Salisbury, N.C., investigators found that patients had to wait an average of 86 days to see a psychiatrist. Staff told investigators that the hospital was trying to replace three psychiatrists who had moved to the private sector within the past year.
The department plans to add about 1,600 clinicians, including psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers and professional counselors, and about 300 support staff to an existing mental health staff of roughly 20,590. Still, the inspector general is recommending that the department undertake a comprehensive staffing analysis to determine just how much vacancies are hurting its ability to meet its standards for timely mental health care.