Many veterans still wait weeks for mental health care

Thousands of veterans seeking help for the first time for mental health problems are waiting longer than the government’s goal of counseling them within two weeks, Department of Veterans Affairs data show.

At a time when an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide daily, the agency in 2013 failed to schedule a third of new mental health patient appointments within 14 days, the data show.

Delays are worse for certain therapies. For example, it takes more than a month on average to begin seeing a VA psychiatrist for therapy or to see one who can assess psychiatric conditions for disability compensation, according to statistics provided by the VA following a request for public records.

In nearly half of 47,700 first-time psychiatric therapy appointments in 2013, veterans waited longer than two weeks, records show. The average time it took to start any type of behavioral health therapy was 15 days.

Overall, the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to meet its 14-day goal in 34% of new mental health appointments in treatment categories including psychiatry, psychology, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.

Some of the worst bottlenecks are at large VA hospitals in Orlando, Houston and Los Angeles, where at least two of every five veterans have to wait more than two weeks to see a counselor. In Houston, veterans needing new appointments waited an average of 28 days to receive services.

VA officials say new mental-health patient wait times — while still unacceptably long at some hospitals — improved by 6 percentage points over the course of this year. “We’re committed to seeing people as soon as possible,” said Mary Schohn, VA director of mental health operations.

She said that any patient who appears suicidal is provided immediate treatment.

The department is working against a rising tide of troubled veterans, particularly from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. By late last year, more than 1,600 new mental health patientswere flooding into VA facilities each week on average.

The department announced last year it would increase mental health staffing by 10% and hiring was completed last June, Schohn said.

USA TODAY reported two years ago that nearly a third of new mental health appointments for veterans were taking longer than 14 days. A year later, the VA inspector general cited a 36% failure rate. Data for the current year show little progress, although the VA says it is wrong to compare current statistics with those from previous years because methods of counting have changed.

Senate and House VA committee leaders reacted sharply to the continuing delays.

“It is unacceptable that even after the hiring of 1,600 new mental health staff, certain VA facilities remain unable to … treat veterans in a timely manner,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., head of the Senate panel. “Consequences of leaving mental health conditions untreated can be dire. Such failures cannot continue.”

“VA must embrace an approach to care delivery that treats veterans where and how they want, rather than where and how VA wants,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House panel.

VA officials say that once mental health patients begin regular therapy, the department has a 96% success rate of seeing repeat patients on a timely basis.

Schohn said veterans can receive immediate attention for mental health problems by using a crisis hotline (1-800-273-8255) or going to a VA hospital emergency room.

The department for years touted a 95% success rate in initiating mental health treatment for veterans within two weeks. But after a three-year study on calculating wait times, officials now realize their methods of assessing wait times were wrong.

“I felt like we were actually coming to grips with reality,” said Mike Davies, VA director of access.”We’d heard these stories that patients feel like (they are) waiting longer than the data was saying.”

Barbara Van Dahlen, psychologist, and founder and president of Give an Hour, a non-profit group that enlists volunteer treatment for troops, veterans and their families from 7,000 civilian caregivers nationwide, said a quick response to those in need is vital.

“In the private practice world, if somebody calls you and says, ‘Hi, I need help,’ most … work incredibly hard to get that person in within a very few days because you want to take advantage of the fact that they’re taking that important first step,” she said.

The VA’s busiest hospital for new behavioral health appointments — the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center in Gainesville, Fla. — scheduled more than 17,000 new appointments in fiscal 2013, and nearly 60% took longer than 14 days. The average wait for a new appointment there in 2013 was more than 32 days, data shows.

The VA published an analysis earlier this year estimating that of a population of more than 20 million veterans, 22 commit suicide each day.

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