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Murray presses for speedier VA care

Wed., Dec. 7, 2011

Clinics with long waits include Spokane center

The ranking members of a U.S. Senate committee are seeking an investigation into how long it takes veterans to be seen by mental health professionals at Veterans Affairs medical facilities.

Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., also have asked the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs to find out whether the department is telling the truth about mental health care accessibility.

“In addition, we ask that your office evaluate whether VA is accurately and completely reporting the data they collect,” read a letter to Inspector General George Opfer from Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Burr, the top-ranking Republican on the panel.

The request follows Senate hearings and a survey of VA mental health providers that showed veterans often had to wait longer than two weeks for an appointment, including a three-week wait at Spokane VA Medical Center.

At a time when U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has increased demand for mental health services, 70 percent of VA mental health care providers said they did not have adequate staff or space to meet the needs of veterans.

The Spokane facility has reported losing 40 percent of its therapy staff last year, “contributing significantly” to wait times for mental health care.

In addition, Spokane VA mental health providers carry a caseload of between 550 and 650 patients, higher than the VA national average of 515 patients last year.

During last week’s hearings, Murray’s committee heard from a VA psychologist and mental health care coordinator about delays in providing treatment, including care for post-traumatic stress.

The hearings also raised questions about whether VA providers were “using techniques to ensure initial mental health care appointments fall within the VA’s required 14-day window, without providing true access to care at those appointments,” according to a statement from Murray’s office. 

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