A snapshot of problems facing the Department of Veterans Affairs in fixing systemwide delays and coverups in care was made clearer Wednesday in El Paso where a congressman’s survey of veterans showed stark differences between claims of treatment and the experiences of those seeking it.
More than a third of veterans surveyed in the district of Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said they were unable to get mental health care appointments at the VA. Forty-three percent said they put off therapy because of trouble seeing a counselor, and veterans said it took more than three months to be seen on average.
This differed sharply from what the VA reported for El Paso, O’Rourke said. The agency told him that 85 percent to 100 percent of veterans were provided mental health appointments within 14 days.
“El Paso veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and other untreated conditions report being effectively turned away and denied care,” O’Rourke wrote in the foreword of the survey results. He noted this is happening when the suicide rates among veterans remain high.
The results were based on 692 responses from about 19,000 veterans in the El Paso area. The survey, conducted by phone and email, has a margin of error of +/-3.8 percentage points.
The acting secretary of the VA, Sloan Gibson — who took over after Eric Shinseki resigned under fire last Friday — reported to veterans groups that at the VA in Phoenix, where major allegations of delay were raised by a retired doctor, the agency has taken steps to help those waiting for care.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the agency reported that its staff had worked to contact 1,586 veterans who had been identified by the VA inspector general as waiting for medical care at the Phoenix facility.
Out of that number, about 725 veterans told the VA they wanted to been seen within the next 30 days. Inspector general investigators had said that none of these veterans were on the official list of patients to be seen and could have conceivably never been helped.
In the El Paso survey conducted by O’Rourke’s staff and completed May 19, some 77 percent of veterans said that it took longer than the VA standard of 14 days to be seen by a therapist. Some 27 percent complained that the time spent with a counselor was too short. And overall, the veterans rated their mental health care at the El Paso VA, on a scale of 1-10, at 5.43.
The veterans in El Paso reported similar problems in seeing doctors for health care. It took an average of 85 days to receive an appointment with a doctor and 72 percent said their wait-time was longer than the 14-day standard.
More than a third said they were either unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with the quality of mental and medical care at that facility.