Last week, the Obama administration reiterated that 33,000 troops will be coming home from Afghanistan by the end of next year. That's on top of thousands steaming back from Iraq. Is the VA prepared for the certain influx of trauma and PTSD cases? A survey released by Senator Patty Murray isn't encouraging.
Murray, who held a hearing last week on the subject, got responses from roughly 270 VA staffers, including psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. Seventy percent said their clinic didn't have the staff to meet the current demand for mental health care--never mind the tidal wave to come.
Staff also indicated that many veterans were not getting into the VA within the two-week window mandated by the feds. Most disturbingly, only about half said they could meet that time frame for "specialty" appointments, which include care for PTSD.
This information conflicts with official data supplied by VA management for the very same clinics reported on by staffers. According to the VA, nearly 100 percent of its patients--including those seeking specialty appointments--are meeting the two-week window.
Yet even the official VA data shows wide variance depending on location. Generally, the VA Puget Sound comes out pretty well, notes Murray press aide Matt McAlvanah. But the average wait time runs longer than a couple weeks for roughly 30 percent of patients looking for PTSD care.
Murray has now requested an Inspector General investigation to get to the bottom of the discrepancy between staff and official data. She's stressed the urgency of the matter, pointing to the 18 veterans a day that are currently committing suicide.
Admittedly, it's tough to play the blame game when it comes to soldier suicide. As illustrated by our recent cover story on the suicide of Ranger Jared Hagemann, there's a complex set of dynamics that go on when a soldier returns home, sometimes including devastating relationship problems. One thing's for sure, though. Returning soldiers need mental health care--and the VA is going to have to step up its game to provide it.