Local veterans’ medical centers are suffering backlogs and long wait times for appointments amid a surge in post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses among troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Internal reviews by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs revealed wait times for new appointments for mental health care averaged 30 days at the agency’s medical centers in Washington, D.C.; Maryland; Martinsburg and Richmond. The agency acknowledges the wait times are unacceptably long. Local veterans have reported frustrations with the delays and, in some cases, are bailing on the VA system altogether.
The increase in PTSD cases has been sharp and severe in recent years. A federal report by the Congressional Research Service shows 118,829 new cases among troops from 2002 to 2013, amid the wars overseas.
Though the VA has added staff and funding to handle the increase in PTSD cases, a report in June by the National Academy of Sciences indicates the agency is struggling to do so. “(The Veterans Affairs) workforce has proven to be inadequate to provide the increasing number of veterans who have PTSD with adequate evidence-based treatments,” the report said.
Andrew Kaufmann, an Iraq war veteran diagnosed with PTSD, said he suffered long delays and paperwork problems while trying to make a mental health appointment with the VA medical center in Richmond. “I went in and they didn't have my records,” Kaufmann said. “I didn't have a primary care doctor. They didn't know who I was."
A spokeswoman for CODE of SUPPORT, an Alexandria-based group that supports injured veterans, said the organization has handled a series of complaints from vets who suffered delays trying to secure mental health appointments at D.C.-area VA clinics. Kristy Kaufmann, the organization’s spokeswoman and no relation to Andrew, said, “We have cases come in all the time, people who’ve been waiting six months to a year, and they’re now in real crisis.”
In a statement to News4, the VA said, “Veterans are waiting too long for the care they need. That’s why VA is taking action to accelerate care for the veterans we serve and improve the way wait times are reported and monitored.”
An agency spokeswoman also addressed the recent VA report showing 30-day waits for new mental health care in the D.C. region. “This data release does not measure when appointments have actually occurred, nor does it take into account that many patients will be seen sooner or may call to reschedule later,” the spokeswoman said. “Therefore, this is a conservative measure, and in some cases, the prospective data overestimates actual waiting times experienced by veterans.”
The agency said it is hiring additional mental health professionals in the region. Six new mental health professionals have been hired, but their start dates have not yet been announced. News4 has learned 16 more mental health staffers are still needed locally.