VA questioned on mental health care progress despite hiring, funding
By Leo Shane III
Stars and Stripes
Published: February 13, 2013
Latest VA estimate of veteran suicides comes from limited data
VA has added 1,000 mental health professionals to staff
Stars and Stripes coverage of veterans issues
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., speaks at the 2012 Warrior-Family Symposium in
Washington, DC on Sept. 13, 2012.
C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON — Despite more money and more staff to tackle the problem,
veterans aren’t seeing enough progress toward getting mental health
care, the chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said Wednesday.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the extra funding and effort by the
Department of Veterans Affairs seems to be going toward more bureaucracy
and not better care for veterans. That’s particularly concerning with
the wave of Iraq and Afghanistan servicemembers expected to reach the
department in coming years.
“The true measure of success with respect to mental health care is not
how many people are hired but how many people are helped,” he told VA
officials during a hearing Wednesday. “It has become painfully clear to
me that the VA is focused more on its process and not its outcomes.”
The comments came during a hearing examining recent struggles of the
department. Veterans Health Administration Undersecretary for Health
Robert Petzel countered that the department is on the right path, but
acknowledged they still have a daunting task ahead.
Veterans Affairs officials have seen a steady rise in the number of
veterans seeking mental health care in recent years, from about 927,000
cases in fiscal 2006 to more than 1.3 million in fiscal 2012.
Earlier this week, department officials announced they have hired more
than 1,280 clinical providers and support staff to new posts in the last
five months, part of an effort to add 1,900 new mental health
They’ve also filled 1,980 vacant mental health positions since last
summer, and increased the number of crisis workers and phone lines. In a
statement, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the moves mean that “we can
treat more veterans and provide greater access to our mental health
But lawmakers remain frustrated that the agency isn’t moving fast enough
to respond to veterans battling problems like post-traumatic stress
disorder and traumatic brain injury.
A VA Inspector General report found that veterans seeking any mental
health care in the department wait an average of 50 days before getting
treatment. Earlier this month, a new VA study found that 22 veterans a
day committed suicide in 2010, and increase from 18 a day just three
Veterans advocates say they still see fundamental flaws in the
department’s approach to treating troubled former troops, which leads to
the disappointing results.
Linda Spoonster Schwartz, commissioner of the Connecticut VA, said
families are often shut out of treatment programs, despite research
showing significant benefits in including them. David Rudd, director of
the University of Utah’s Center for Veterans Studies, said VA’s
preference to add staff rather than coordinate with private physicians
leaves rural veterans with long drives to seek care.
But Petzel said he has seen positive signs of progress. While calls to
the department’s suicide hotline are up, the percent of actively
suicidal vets is down. Officials say veterans who receive VA care are
also less likely to take their own lives.
“We are making a difference,” he said.
In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Barack Obama
promised that “we will keep faith with our veterans, investing in
world-class care -- including mental health care -- for our wounded
Petzel said the department is working to launch 15 pilot programs on
working more closely with community health providers, to see whether
that might solve some rural veteran access problems. They’ve also
expanded online health care programs and readjustment counseling options
But Rep. Jon Runyan, R-N.J., said the department’s efforts still seem
more reactive than proactive, jumping from one crisis to another.
Several lawmakers and veterans advocates said they worry the department
still reaches only a small segment of the veterans population, leaving
tens of thousands of troubled individuals without any help.
“VA must stand ready to treat our veterans where and how our veterans
want, not just where and how VA wants,” Miller said.