Senate panel hears of battles for care by veterans with PTSD

Forty percent of about 600 Iraq- and Afghanistan-era veterans surveyed by the non-profit Wounded Warrior Project in recent weeks, and who were seeking VA mental health treatment, reportedly struggled in getting help. And among those, 40% received no therapy at all, said John Roberts, executive vice president of the organization.

Roberts called the survey result a "stark call-to-action."

The committee has been pressing the VA hard in recent months on delays in treating mental health cases after a survey done within the department earlier this year showed that 70% of clinicians believe the VA lacks staffing or space to handle the mounting numbers of veterans seeking care.

A USA TODAY analysis of VA data showed that new mental health patients at about a third of department hospitals wait longer than the VA's goal of treating patients within 14 days or less.

The VA insists that it is meeting scheduling deadlines and that any delays are the result of problems it cannot control, such as patient rescheduling or failing to show up for appointments.

USA TODAY reported Wednesday that 10,000 combat veterans with PTSD sought care at VA hospitals every three months this year, pushing the total number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated by the VA for the disorder to 211,000.

Washington was the first VA employee to step forward publicly in recent months and describe severe delays in mental health treatment.

"I am frequently frustrated in my ability to provide care," said Washington, who has also been authorized to speak on behalf of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employees union.

Washington said VA schedulers are under enormous pressure to meet the VA's 14-day deadline for new patients and this robs therapists of the ability to manage growing numbers of veterans requiring ongoing and lengthy counseling.

She said problems will persist "as long as scheduling continues to be driven by clerks pressured by management to make the numbers look good — and as long as mental health providers have little or no say about where and when to best serve patients."

The VA director of mental health operations, Mary Schoen, says the department has increased its staffing by nearly 50% since 2006, and continues to look for ways to improve access to care. The VA's failure, however, to acknowledge significant problems led committee member to question the credibility of Schoen and her staff.

"I just want to hear the truth," said Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

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