Veterans Facing Significantly Longer Mental Health Care Waits Than Publicized

Veterans face long mental health care waits.

A new report shows that it is taking the VA too long to provide veterans with the mental health services they need.

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has been greatly overestimating how quickly it provides care to veterans, according to a report released this week by the VA Inspector General.

First-time patients seeking mental health services are supposed to receive an initial examination within 24 hours and a full follow-up exam within 14 days. Last year, the VHA reported that 95% of its patients were being seen within this two week window.

But the Inspector General determined the 95 percent figure only measured how long it took to conduct the evaluation once it had been scheduled, not how long the patient waited to be seen. Using the same data, this new report found that nearly half of veterans seeking health care for the first time waited an average of 50 days before receiving a full evaluation.

The IG report also found that only two-thirds of patients received treatment within 14 days of being evaluated, another VHA requirement.

“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,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “It is deeply disturbing and demands action from the VA.”

The Veterans Affairs Committee commissioned the Inspector General’s report.

Staffing Shortages

Part of the problem is that there are not enough employees to keep up with the increasing demand for care. VHA staff has increased 45 percent since 2005, but the number of patients has increased by almost the same amount.

Last week, the VA announced that they plan to hire an additional 1,600 clinicians, including psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers and professional counselors, in addition to another 300 support staff. This marks an almost 10 percent increase to the more than 20,000 existing mental health workers at the VHA.

Still, there is concern that this may not fix the extended wait times for veterans. These discrepancies originated with the VHA’s inability to accurately collect and analyze data. A working group has been established to address the problem and develop a new system for tracking these benchmarks.

Changes Promised

“Getting our veterans timely mental health care can quite frankly often be the difference between life and death. It’s the critical period, not unlike the ‘golden hour’ immediately after a traumatic physical injury,” Murray said.

VA Under Secretary for Health, Robert Petzel, assures that the VHA is moving quickly to make changes.

Photo courtesy of Becky Houtman.