12.06.11

Sens. Murray, Burr Ask VA Inspector General to Launch Investigation into Mental Health Care Wait Times

As veterans continue to take their own lives at unprecedented rates, top Democrat and Republican on Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee call for inquiry after evidence of long wait times for appointments, questions over bookkeeping practices, and dissatisf

(Washington, D.C.) - Today, U.S. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Richard Burr (R-NC), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, asked the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Inspector General to begin a formal audit of mental health care wait times at the VA. The call for action comes after a series of Senate hearings raised questions around the time it takes for veterans to receive an initial appointment and whether VA facilities are accurately reporting mental health care accessibility.

"We write to request that your office conduct an audit of how accurately wait times for mental health services are recorded for both the initial visits and the follow-up appointments and determine if wait time data VA collects represent an accurate depiction of veterans' ability to access those services," the Senators wrote. "In addition, we ask that your office evaluate whether VA is accurately and completely reporting the data they collect."

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee has held two hearings this year on VA mental health accessibility. At the first hearing on July 14th the Committee heard the first-hand stories of two service members, who even after attempting to take their own lives, had appointments postponed and difficulties cutting through the red tape in order to get care.Then, just last week, the Committee heard from a VA psychologist and mental health care coordinator who testified about delays in providing mental health care treatment, including care for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). That hearing also raised questions on whether VA providers where using techniques to ensure initial mental health care appointments fall within the VA's required 14 day window, without providing true access to care at those appointments. A survey of VA mental health providers requested by Senator Murray showed dramatically different results from the waiting time data that VA reports.

Senator Murray also called VA's Inspector General, George Opfer to reiterate the importance of this investigation and the high priority she places on attaining accurate and complete mental health care wait time data from the VA. At the Committee hearing last week, the VA witnesses said the Department would cooperate fully with the investigation requested by Senators Murray and Burr.

The full text of the Senators' letter follows:

December 6, 2011

The Honorable George J. Opfer

Inspector General Department of Veterans Affairs

801 I Street, NW

Washington, D.C. 20001

Dear Mr. Opfer,

We continue to hear from veterans about long wait times for VA mental health services. For that reason, the Committee held a hearing last week to discuss wait times and access to mental health care. While we understand that VA is in the midst of implementing new actions which build on the continuing transformation of mental health services to improve veterans' access to care, the Committee cannot properly evaluate the implementation unless provided with accurate information.

We write to request that your office conduct an audit of how accurately wait times for mental health services are recorded for both the initial visits and the follow-up appointments and determine if wait time data VA collects represent an accurate depiction of the veterans' ability to access those services. In addition, we ask that your office evaluate whether VA is accurately and completely reporting the data they collect. We have many questions about the overall implementation of mental health services at VA, but the most important is whether or not veterans can access the mental health care they need in a timely manner. Our request would build upon your previous work regarding wait lists for mental health care. At the Committee's recent hearing we requested that the Department cooperate fully with this audit, and they have agreed to do so.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this important request. We appreciate your work to ensure our nation's veterans are provided high quality care and timely services at VA and look forward to your report.