Report: VA Mental Health Treatment Stats Misleading

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has been tightening standards to ensure that vets get mental health care as soon as they need it. Now, a Senate committee has heard evidence that those standards are meaningless, and that some VA leaders are earning bonuses for fulfilling meaningless performance targets.

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Finally, this hour, the growing need for mental health care for veterans. Congress has been giving the Department of Veterans Affairs more money to deal with the problem. But today, lawmakers questioned whether the VA is being honest about its progress. NPR's Larry Abramson reports on new evidence the agency has misled Congress and the public about how long it takes vets to get treatment.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Many vets wait weeks or months for help, even though some are in crisis. But this week, an inspector general's report said the VA was essentially low-balling the amount of time it takes to get help for mental health problems, like posttraumatic stress. At a hearing today, Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington asked agency leaders, is this deliberate?

SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: Do you believe that VA facilities are gaming the system and not fully reporting wait times?

ABRAMSON: Simple question. But VA Under Secretary William Schoenhard's answer was anything but simple.

WILLIAM SCHOENHARD: Senator, I would say that we have zero tolerance for that, and we are going to continue our audits and...

ABRAMSON: Schoenhard did not really contest the charge that the VA's numbers on wait times are bogus. He just said we're going to do better. But how can the VA be trusted to audit itself? Former VA employee Nicholas Tolentino said he saw managers aim for performance targets with one goal in mind: collecting bonuses. Tolentino, a Navy vet himself, said his managers seemed more concerned with treating a lot of patients than with quality of care.

NICHOLAS TOLENTINO: We got the order focused only on the veterans' immediate problem: treat it quickly in that appointment, usually with medication, and don't ask further questions about needs because, and I quote, "we don't want to know, or we'll have to treat it."

ABRAMSON: The VA has said these problems stem from a shortage of staff and a growing mental health caseload. But Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown said if the agency can't handle the workload, it should be turning to outside therapists and other providers.

SENATOR SCOTT BROWN: Why is it that, you know, you've only 2 percent per year of the total percentile for non-VA care? Why is it only 2 percent, yet the handbook says that you should - you should and could do it?

SCHOENHARD: We do that where we can. Often...

BROWN: What do you mean by...

SCHOENHARD: ...where we have shortages, the community has shortages.

ABRAMSON: The shortage of mental health professionals is a big problem for the agency. The VA has announced a plan to address long wait times by hiring additional staff. But Senator Patty Murray wondered whether that will work.

MURRAY: How are you going to make sure that 1,600 new mental health care providers that you announced don't become 1,600 new vacancies?

ABRAMSON: The VA already has trouble filling mental health slots, especially in rural areas. One witness pointed out that the VA has many different missions - recruiting new staff, doing research, treating physical wounds and mental health. The agency may have to rethink its priorities to deal with the growing importance of mental health care for vets. Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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