The V.A.’s Shameful Betrayal
by Mike Scotti
New York Times, May 27, 2012
The Department of Veterans Affairs, already under enormous strain from the aging of the Vietnam generation, the end of the Iraq war and the continuing return of combat troops from Afghanistan, announced in April that it would increase its mental health staff by about 10 percent. But too many veterans waging a lonely and emotional struggle to resume a normal life continue to find the agency a source of disappointment rather than healing.
The new hiring is intended to address the infuriating delay veterans face in getting appointments. The V.A. says it tries to complete full mental health evaluations within 14 days of an initial screening. But a review by the department’s inspector general found that schedulers were entering misleading information into their computer system.
They were recording the next available appointment date as the patient’s desired appointment date. As a result, a veteran who might have had to wait weeks for an appointment would appear in the computer system as having been seen “without a wait.” That allowed the agency to claim that the two-week target was being reached in 95 percent of cases, when the real rate was 49 percent. The rest waited an average of 50 days.
My image of the V.A., formed while I was on active duty, was of an ineffective, uncaring institution. Tales circulated among my fellow Marines of its institutional indifference, and those impressions were confirmed when I left Iraq for home. — Former Marine Capt. Mike Scotti
As a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, I found that news maddening. While the schedulers played games with the numbers, veterans were dealing with mental wounds so serious that getting proper attention at the right time might have made the difference between life and death. Even worse was that the V.A. had failed twice before to change; the inspector general found similar problems in 2005 and in 2007. This suggests a systematic misrepresentation of data and an unwillingness to stop it.
Unfortunately, the problem goes even deeper. There are potentially hundreds of thousands of veterans who are struggling with post-combat mental health issues who never ask the V.A. for help. Some, hamstrung by fear of stigma, are too proud or too ashamed to ask for help. Others don’t ask because they’ve heard too many stories from peers who have received poor care or been ignored.
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