22 Veterans per Day Commit Suicide as VA Struggles to Trim Wait Lists

Posted by Jason Van Steenwyk

describe the imageYou know it’s bad news if it gets released on a Friday right before Superbowl Weekend.

On Friday, February 1, the Department of Veterans Affairs released a new report, detailing the suicide problem among veterans and highlighting the demographics most affected. The report found that about 22 veterans per day, on average, committed suicide in 2012. Similar numbers of veterans committed suicide each day in 2010 and 2011. The long-term average is about 20, according to the VA. The data showed that veterans identified as having committed suicide were more likely to have higher levels of academic achievement, were more likely to have been married, widowed or divorced and more likely to be non-Hispanic whites.

The report also says that women who commit suicide may be underreported as veterans, because their veteran status is less likely to be identified on their death certificates. This means that the actual rate of suicide among veterans is likely to be somewhat higher.

Meanwhile, the Veterans Administration is having trouble ensuring that veterans reporting a need for mental health care are receiving treatment in a timely manner: The Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General found that a number of VA clinics in the Atlanta area had unacceptably high numbers of patients seeking mental health or substance abuse treatment on the wait list in 2010.

They also found that the VA had not established a metric or standard to ensure that once a veteran had been seen in an initial appointment, that the veteran could receive follow-up or continuing treatment in a timely manner.

Because of this glitch, VA staff could see a new patient quickly, and then put him back on the wait list. In this manner, clinical directors could look good in their reports and evaluations, while still having large numbers of patients on long waiting lists for appointments and follow-up care.

Another report by the VA Office of the Inspector General issued in 2012 excoriated the Veterans Health Administration for the same reason – indicating not much had changed in the two years between the IG inspection of the Georgia clinics in 2010 and this report:

In VA’s FY 2011 Performance and Accountability Report (PAR), VHA reported 95 percent of first-time patients received a full mental health evaluation within 14 days. However, this measure had no real value as VHA measured how long it took VHA to conduct the evaluation, not how long the patient waited to receive an evaluation.

For example, if a patient’s primary care provider referred the patient to mental health service on September 15 and the medical facility scheduled and completed the evaluation on October 1, VHA’s data showed the veteran waited 0-days for their evaluation. In reality, the veteran waited 15 days for their evaluation.

The report went on to note that a wait list of 50 days was regular and routine among those not seen in the first 14 days – which was 52 percent of them. Since the number was an average, a significant number of these veterans seeking mental health care waited longer than that.

The Inspector General also found that the VHA’s own numbers were neither accurate nor reliable, and they routinely and significantly overstated their success in meeting the 14 day requirement established by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Further, according to the office of Representative Jeff Miller (R-FL), the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, VA clinics were operating with mental health care staff vacancies as high as 23 percent, and 70 percent of VA mental health staff believed they did not have enough staff to cover the workload.

The Department of Veterans Affairs did announce it was increasing mental health staff by 9 percent last April, and in August of 2012, the President signed an executive order directing the significant expansion of mental health care staff throughout the VA. 


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