Lawmakers skeptical as VA touts strides in mental health care for veterans

VA hospital
A sign at a VA hospital in California

Credit: Parker Knight/Flickr.com

 

WASHINGTON – A senior Veterans Affairs official said today that the agency is now better prepared to help former military personnel cope with the emotional and psychological trauma of war, but key members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee remained skeptical amid intensifying demand for mental health care.

“We are making a difference,” Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, told the committee, citing the hiring of more than 1,000 mental health care workers and a slight drop in the suicide rate among veterans who receive care from the VA system.

Yet that hiring total, announced by the VA earlier this week in a news release, fell 600 employees short of the goal the agency made after an April audit by the agency’s inspector general.

And while the agency had exceeded its goal for hiring nonclinical support staff, it had hired half of the promised psychiatrists, according to a new auditor’s report released today.

“Hiring more non-clinical staff than required does not compensate for the lack of clinical staff and may not improve efficiency,” the inspector general said in its written comments.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chided the agency for focusing on process over progress – “the number of people hired – numbers, numbers, numbers” – in its testimony today before the committee he leads.

“The most important number is how many veterans are getting healthy, or healthier, or helped,” Miller said.

Most of the numbers related to veteran suicides are bleak. On Feb. 1, the agency upped its estimate of the total number of veterans who commit suicide from 18 to 22 a day. Even when controlling for other factors, the suicide rate for veterans remains double that of people who never served in the military.

In addition, the VA’s estimate did not include a review of data from 29 states, including California and Texas, so the real total could be much higher. Those states did not provide data to the VA.

But a quick Google search shows the VA could have easily obtained at least some of the missing information. In 2010, the California Department of Public Health added the ability to analyze the prevalence of veteran suicide to an interactive online database of death certificates.

That year, the health department reported that 705 California veterans took their own lives.

Today’s hearing came at a time of increased attention on the government’s treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

On Monday, a story in Esquire revealed that the former Navy SEAL who says he killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was unemployed, without a pension and had not accessed VA health care since being discharged from active duty. In the story, written in cooperation with the Center for Investigative Reporting, he said he had related suicidal thoughts and excessive drinking to a military psychiatrist during a mandatory psychiatric evaluation.

“He told me this was normal for SEALs after combat deployment,” the unidentified shooter told author Phil Bronstein, CIR’s executive chairman. “He told me I should just drink less and not hurt anybody."

Later in the day, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, appeared on CNN to discuss the SEAL’s situation. He said there is a moral obligation to care for the nation’s veterans.

“What he has done is put a spotlight on a very serious problem,” said Sanders, who met with the SEAL on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

During his appearance on CNN, Sanders said the VA is “working very aggressively” to institute measures, including a paperless claim system, to help ease the backlog of claims awaiting processing.

He acknowledged that “there are many veterans out there who don’t know what they are entitled to.” Nationally, nearly half of all returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have failed to access VA health care, according to the agency’s own data.

During today’s House hearing, some committee members, mostly Republicans, suggested that the VA might not be fully aware of the extent of mental health problems among the country’s veteran population. They also argued that some may be choosing not to seek help from the VA, but instead seek treatment with state and local agencies or private companies.

“Could they be going somewhere else other than your crisis line?” Miller asked.

“We don’t think so,” Petzel replied, although he did not elaborate.

Veterans advocates called Petzel’s response absurd. In an interview, Shad Meshad, a former Vietnam combat medic and the head of the Los Angeles-based National Veterans Foundation, said he was not surprised that bin Laden’s killer had not sought care from the agency.

“Veterans stay away because it’s an antiquated system,” Meshad said, adding that the VA’s elaborate bureaucracy and preference for psychotropic medicine over counseling discourage many veterans from seeking help.

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