By Gregg Zoroya, USA TODAY
An internal investigation at the Department of Veterans Affairs released Monday says tens of thousands of veterans waited far longer last year to receive mental health treatment than what the VA contends.
An inspector general found that claims by the VA that 95% of its patients are both evaluated for mental health problems and begin receiving therapy within a 14-day goal set by the department are false.
In fact, only about half of mental patients were evaluated within two weeks. The remainder waited an average of seven weeks, the investigation found.
On the time it takes to begin treatment, the probe corroborated findings by a USA TODAY analysispublished Nov. 9 which revealed that about a third of VA patients wait longer than 14 days to start treatment.
The VA Inspector General confirmed that only 64% are treated within 14 days, and the rest — a projected 94,000 patient appointments in 2011 — wait nearly six weeks on average before starting their treatment.
The VA’s “mental health performance data is not accurate or reliable,” the inspector general concluded, adding that the department “overstated its success.”
For follow-up sessions, the VA says it meets its 14-day goal for 98% of its patients. But the investigation found that true only 88% of the time, with patients beyond that date waiting nearly eight weeks for follow-on care.
The VA said it concurred with the investigation results and would move “rapidly” to revamp its process for measuring delays. Department officials said last year they have had chronic difficulty monitoring access to mental health care, partly because of a 25-year-old computerized scheduling system slated for replacement.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have partly resulted in an increase every three months of 10,000 new patients arriving at the VA suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA treats 1.3 million mental health patients, including 400,000 from the two conflicts, according to the department.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, requested the investigation in November after a survey of VA mental health workers last year revealed concerns about delays and staff shortages.
The VA announced Thursday it would immediately begin expanding its 20,000-member mental health staff by 1,900 to reduce delays in care.
USA TODAY reported this month that the VA has been unable to fill about 20% of its existing psychiatric positions in hospitals in large sections of the nation.
The inspector general confirmed that according to interviews with VA staff the “greatest challenge has been to hire and retain psychiatrists.” Three out of four hospital sites visited by investigators lacked psychiatrists.
At one VA hospital in Salisbury, N.C., the shortage caused patients there to wait an average of three months to see a psychiatrist, the report says.