House lawmakers grilled Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki in a full committee on Tuesday, following a damning Inspector General’s report in April showing that veterans were waiting an average of 50 days for mental health evaluations, though the VA had reported that most were seen within 14 days.
The report was anticipated by an announcement by VA officials that they planned to hire 1,900 more mental health care workers, in addition to filling current vacancies totaling 1,500 positions, in order to better provide for troops.
But House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said a quick fix wouldn’t solve the department’s bureaucratic problems.
“I am afraid that VA’s response in this instance is yet another example of a federal bureaucracy providing a quick-fix, cookie-cutter solution to a very serious, multifaceted problem,” he said. And “If VA doesn’t even have a complete picture of the problem, how confident can we be that access will be increased and care enhanced by VA’s knee-jerk reaction?”
Last year, the VA provided mental health care and services to 1.3 million veterans, according to its own records.
Shinseki said a large part of the department’s recent challenges hinged on a jump in demand: the VA had increased its mental health care budget 39 percent just since 2009, and had seen a 35 percent increase in its patient population for mental health services since 2007.
Traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress have been signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where improvised explosive devices have been the weapon of choice in enemy attacks.
“In our process, you resource us to a requirement. Those requests are based on a prior-year number of folks who walked in the door,” Shinseki said. “What this means is, essentially, that we are in a reactive cycle. Where we have spikes in that requirement, then we have these occasional needs to address the staffing issue.”
Still, Shinseki said the disparity between the IG audit and VA reports of its own system were primarily differences in record-keeping with how the wait times were tabulated, not actually conflicting accounts. He said they were shifting to a new record system that would provide a more accurate idea of how long veterans are actually waiting between coming to the VA and receiving their first evaluation.
Still, Miller said the big VA problem still remains: a massive gap between the number of care providers and the veteran patients who need treatment, and a hiring process that will take between six months and a year to reach completion.
“How in the world are you going to accomplish that in a timely fashion in order to provide mental health care for the veterans
today?” Miller asked. “I don’t believe that anyone in this committee believes that you can hire quickly 3,400-plus people.
While the hearing resulted in few answers on the way forward for veterans’ care, the real problems for the embattled department may be ahead: nearly two million veterans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and around 20 percent of those suffer from post-traumatic stress or depression, according to the American Psychological Association.