While Veterans Wait
Department Must Do More to Help Mental Health Needs
The federal Department of Veteran Affairs has devoted much effort and money to improve and expand its mental health care, especially for those coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries. But continuing reports of drug dependency, suicides and suicide attempts among veterans and active-duty soldiers suggest that urgent needs remain vast and unmet. So do persistent accounts from veterans who say they spend months waiting for mental health care.
Now, the department’s own health-care professionals say that the department’s efforts are not enough.
After conducting hearings last summer on long waits for mental-health appointments, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (Dem., Wash.), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, asked the department to survey its providers across the country to find out what the problems were. The results, released this month, show chronic inadequacies in access to care.
Only 29 percent of respondents--272 psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and social workers at dozens of hospitals and clinics--said their workplace had enough staff to meet demand. Nearly 40 percent said they could not schedule an appointment for a new patient within the two-week window the veterans department requires. Nearly 70 percent said they lacked enough space. And nearly half said some patients were being denied care because no appointments were available outside regular office hours.
The veterans affairs department says it’s doing its best, and the Government Accountability Office confirms in a report that the department has expanded mental health care, adding staff and stretching its reach through crisis hot lines and “telemental health care”--therapy by video conferencing. The department points out that its own data show waits for clinic appointments to be far shorter than Sen. Murray’s survey found. It says it is exploring ways to improve scheduling and access.
Still, too often, the response is too late. Veterans need better access to care in community outpatient clinics. They need clinics to be open early mornings and evenings. They need the veterans affairs department to fill mental health staffing vacancies--now at 13.6 percent. If the question is money, the department and the White House need to fight for it in Congress. Acknowledging a mental health problem is a huge hurdle for stoic soldiers. It takes courage to ask for help. When they do, they should not have to wait for a response.