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Senators seek answers on VA mental health waits

Nov. 29, 2011 - 03:31PM   |   Last Updated: Nov. 29, 2011 - 03:31PM  |  
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The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee wants to know why nearly a third of veterans seeking mental health care at Veterans Affairs Department facilities wait longer than 14 days — and in some cases, more than two months — for an appointment.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., committee chairwoman, said she is troubled by what she views as VA's lack of a plan to address problems within its system.

Murray's committee will conduct a hearing on Wednesday seeking answers.

"After the countless Inspector General reports, GAO reports, hearings, public laws, conferences and stories from veterans and clinicians in the field, it is time to act," Murray said in a letter to VA Undersecretary of Health Dr. Robert Petzel in October.

Earlier this year, Murray requested a survey be conducted among VA mental health providers regarding the state of care throughout the system. The data showed that 95 percent of the time, VA meets its goals to provide access to care in 14 days or fewer — when the data is crunched using the time period between the date desired by a veteran for an appointment and the actual start of therapy.

But when calculating the time between when a veteran calls for an appointment and when he starts therapy, that two-week percentage rate drops to 68 percent, according to data from the first half of fiscal 2011 provided to Military Times by the Senate committee.

Murray said her survey also showed that 70 percent of VA health care providers say they don't have adequate staff or space to meet the mental health care needs of the veterans they serve.

"These numbers show that in many communities, VA is unable to give our veterans the timely access to health care they deserve," Murray said.

Called to testify at the hearing are Mary Schohn, director of mental health operations for the Veterans Health Administration; Michelle Washington, coordinator for post traumatic stress disorder services at the Wilmington, Del., VA Medical Center; retired Army Col. (Dr.) Charles Hoge, a former top military psychologist; and representatives from veterans support and mental therapy groups.

"The sad truth is that veterans who call to get a VA appointment have at least made the decision to reach out to the VA for help," Murray said.

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