Editorial: Good care for veterans is a matter of life, death
It took a long time for the federal government to recognize and react to the impact the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were having on returning troops. The need for help is profound, particularly in the area of mental health, but officials have struggled to quantify it. According to a recent report by the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs, that mission still hasn’t been accomplished.
The IG’s review, called for by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, chaired by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., shows veterans in need of mental health care are subjected to delays that far exceed the VA’s goal of two weeks. Furthermore, the nonsensical way the VA calculated some wait times suggests officials either didn’t understand the mission or were trying to conceal the delays.
In some instances, the wait-time goal was considered met if it took less than 14 days to evaluate a patient, even if the patient waited longer than that to be seen. In other instances, schedulers looked for the next available appointment and recorded this as the doctor-recommended time for a follow-up, which meant the VA was greatly overstating how often it met its goal. When IG inspectors checked physicians’ notations against the times patients got follow-up care, the numbers became far more disturbing.
On average, wait times were 41 days nationwide. At the Spokane VA Medical Center, one of four reviewed in the IG report, the average delay was a stunning 80 days.
That’s a huge problem considering the number of suicides committed by veterans. A report last fall put the number at 18 veterans each day. Twenty-one veterans in the Spokane service area killed themselves during the 2007-2008 period. Those numbers have improved, but no thanks to the VA’s odd calculations on wait times. What is infuriating is that the IG pointed out this meaningless math in 2005 and 2007 and nobody put a stop to it.
So let’s state the obvious, because apparently it is difficult for the bureaucracy to comprehend. The whole point of measuring wait times is to see how quickly the system is addressing the mental health challenges facing returning troops. If the next available appointment is well past the two-week goal, that is a problem. You can’t fix that problem by pretending it’s what the doctor ordered.
Now that this problem has been publicized and criticized, the government owes it to veterans to fix it.
In anticipation of this damning report, the VA announced last week that it would be hiring 1,900 more mental health workers. However, the Spokane facility, among others, has struggled to fill vacant psychiatry positions. If more incentives are needed, then supply them. The good news is that the Office of Management and Budget recently announced that the VA will avoid the end-of-year spending cuts affecting the Department of Defense.
So, the money will be available to hire more mental health care workers to trim those long wait times. Now it’s up to the VA’s leaders to ensure that the bureaucracy treats this as a matter of life and death. Because it is.
To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.