WASHINGTON – Senators gave a public scolding Wednesday to the director of mental health operations for the nation’s veterans, saying the federal government must speed up services for those with post-traumatic stress disorder and other afflictions.
Faced with a 34 percent increase in the number of veterans who have sought mental health services since 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs has not kept pace, said Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
As a result, too many veterans are waiting far too long to get help, which is leading to a rash of suicides, increased drug abuse and other problems, said Murray, who heads the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Offering an example from her home state of Washington, Murray said veterans seeking psychiatric help in Spokane have had to wait an average of 21 days for an appointment, with a wait time of up to 87 days.
“We need to fix this now,” Murray said at a committee hearing that she called to examine the topic.
Senators were irked with the results of a survey of VA health care providers released last month; nearly 40 percent said they cannot schedule an appointment in their own clinics within two weeks, as the government’s guidelines require.
The survey, requested by Murray, found that 70 percent did not have adequate staff or space to meet the mental health care needs of veterans they serve, and 46 percent said they needed to provide more off-hours appointments to reach veterans.
Noting that the U.S. is already witnessing a record suicide rate among veterans, with as many as 18 veterans killing themselves every day, Murray said, “We need to meet the veterans’ desire for care with the immediate assurance that it will be provided – and provided quickly. We cannot afford to leave them discouraged that they can’t find an appointment.”
Following Tuesday’s announcement that another 33,000 troops will come home from Afghanistan by the end of next year, Murray said, “The demand for care will only swell.
“This should not come as a shock to VA,” she said. “And it should not cause the waiting line for care to grow. … VA has had a decade to prepare.”