WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has greatly overstated how quickly it provides mental-health care for veterans, according to an inspector general’s report released Monday.
Contrary to a VA claim that 95 percent of first-time patients seeking mental-health care in 2011 received an evaluation within the department’s goal of 14 days, just under half were seen in that time frame, the report found. A majority waited about 50 days on average for a full evaluation.
A similar claim that 95 percent of new patients in 2011 got appointments to begin treatment within 14 days of their desired date was also far off the mark; the report from the VA Office of Inspector General estimated that 64 percent of patients did; the rest waited on average 40 days.
The inflated claims, made in VA’s fiscal 2011 performance and accountability report, come with the department facing growing demand for mental-health services, as thousands of veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who is chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Veterans Affairs and requested the investigation, said the report is “deeply disturbing and demands action from VA. This report shows the huge gulf between the time VA says it takes to get veterans mental-health care and the reality of how long it actually takes veterans to get seen at facilities across the country.”
Delays in treatment for veterans seeking help for post-traumatic stress can be devastating, Murray said.
“Getting our veterans timely mental-health care can quite frankly often be the difference between life and death,” she said.
On Thursday, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said that the department will hire 1,900 mental-health workers, an increase of more than 9 percent, an action taken based on a review of mental-health operations that began in 2011. “We have made strong progress, but we need to do more,” VA said in a statement released Monday afternoon.
The inspector general’s report concluded that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), which runs VA medical care, lacks any accurate method of measuring how long veterans wait for mental-health care.
The data on whether new patients were seen within the desired time were often based on available appointments, rather than the patient’s clinical needs. If the patient was given an appointment two months later because of a lack of openings, the veteran would still be recorded as having been seen within two weeks of the desired date.
The report recommends that VA revise its measurements to reflect the time veterans actually wait for mental-health care and that VA study whether mental-health staff vacancies represent a systemic problem.
Robert Petzel, the department’s undersecretary for health, concurred with the findings and said that the VHA is already making changes. VA is developing better metrics and reporting tools to track waiting times, the department said.
Fears that VA might face budget cuts as it deals with increasing demand for services were relieved by a White House statement Monday that the department is exempt from the threat of automatic cuts to federal spending scheduled next year.
The statement was made in a letter from the Office of Management and Budget in response to a request in March from the Government Accountability Office seeking the White House view.
The letter, from OMB deputy general counsel Steven D. Aitken, says “all programs administered by the VA, including Veterans’ Medical Care, are exempt from sequestration.”
Veterans groups had feared that programs for veterans could be cut because last year’s failure to reach a deal on reducing the federal deficit is supposed to trigger automatic cuts under a sequestration mechanism.
“Disabled veterans can breathe a sigh of relief today,” said Richard L. DeNoyer, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
The uncertainty had sparked criticism on Capitol Hill, where the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., accused the White House of leaving veterans “twisting in the wind.”
Miller called Monday’s statement “long overdue.”