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Military affairs beat: VA faulted for record on mental health care

  • Article by: Mark Brunswick
  • Star Tribune
  • May 1, 2012 - 7:19 PM

An inspector general's report released last week faults the Department of Veterans Affairs for caring more about meaningless performance goals than helping veterans in need of mental health care.

The report, revealed before a Senate hearing on the subject, said the VA lacks a reliable and accurate method of determining whether it is providing patients timely mental health care. In anticipation of the report, the VA announced it was adding 1,900 mental health professionals across the country. But the VA already has about 1,500 vacancies in mental health jobs, mostly in regions where positions are difficult to fill.

In essence, the report accuses the VA of cooking its books about how quickly it responds to vets in mental health crises.

The VA had been claiming it had a 95 percent success rate in providing first-time patients a full mental health evaluation within 14 days. The inspector general's analysis put it at 49 percent. The VA's version measured how long it took itself to conduct the evaluation, not how long the patient waited to receive the evaluation. The inspector general's report found that for the remaining clients, it took the VA about 50 days to provide them with full evaluations.

During a hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, chairwoman of the committee, said the findings showed the VA's "rampant gaming of the system." A spokesman for the VA said it was trying to improve its record-keeping and is studying ways to recruit and retain mental health professionals.

The Minneapolis and St. Cloud VAs say they do not face significant vacancies for mental health professionals. As of Tuesday, there was no word from Washington about how many new positions might be coming in this region, which includes Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska.

The ordeal of one vet who went to the Minneapolis VA in crisis can be found at www.startribune.com/marchinghome.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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