'Veteran Quest' A New Model In VA Clinics

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced in April that it will add over 1,500 mental health workers to its system to reduce the amount of time it takes a veteran to get an appointment. The announcement came ahead of a new government report that said the VA has been overstating the percentage of new patients who actually get a full evaluation within the department's goal of 14 days. Some veterans in Milwaukee — who say they still are not seen at their local VA when they want — are turning to a free clinic with a different approach to care.

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The Veterans Affairs Department recently announced it's adding nearly 2,000 mental health workers to address long wait times for treatment. VA backlogs have forced many Afghanistan and Iraq veterans to look elsewhere for extra help.

Erin Toner of member station WUWM reports on one clinic that offers veterans the kind of attention that doesn't begin or end with an appointment.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

ERIN TONER, BYLINE: Veteran Quest is a mental health clinic just outside Milwaukee, though it feels more like a modern VFW post. Clients casually come and go, sometimes stopping for a soda, or to relax in the lounge, decorated in hues of red, white and blue.

Twenty-nine-year-old Manny Mora Jr. is often a fixture at the clinic's kitchen table hunched over his college textbooks.

MANNY MORA JR.: I'd come over here, even if I don't have an appointment, just to stop to chat with the guys a little bit. That's something that I definitely like from that.

TONER: In addition to the free mental health services offered, vets say the ability to socialize is a big draw. And their family members can also receive free counseling. The clinic is staffed by psychotherapists, including students pursing second master's degrees or PhDs. Manny Mora has posttraumatic stress disorder from his deployment in Iraq in 2003. When he came home, he grew isolated.

MANNY MORA, JR.: Didn't want to talk with family members, didn't want to deal with anybody else. Even tried to attempt to find work, but that was another difficulty in itself.

TONER: Mora is seen for PTSD twice a month at the VA hospital in Milwaukee but says he's not getting a lot out of those sessions.

JR.: The psychologist, the one I've worked with, he's all right. But it's just - it's kind of like, oh, hi. How's it going? Oh yeah, this issue, whatnot and then out the door.

TONER: So while Mora has a PTSD treatment plan and medication from the VA, he gets the bulk of his psychotherapy at Veteran Quest, which is independent and funded entirely by donations from individuals.

KATHY ANDERSON: This is our kitchen, and the fridge is, for anyone that comes in here, they know...

TONER: Kathy Anderson is the clinic's assistant director. She says many of the clients are just like Manny Mora. They're dissatisfied with their care at the VA or claim to be waitlisted for therapy.

ANDERSON: They might be put into a program for several weeks. But then afterwards, they don't have a weekly therapist, a trauma therapist that they sit down and talk to. That's what we're hearing, and those are the people that are coming here.

TONER: By contrast, Anderson says she's available 24 hours a day. Clients can see her immediately and as often as they wish, and they can text message her anytime they feel they're in crisis.

ANDERSON: Therapists usually go home at the end of the day. People don't have their cell phone number. They're not on crisis call 24/7. But that's just not how we do it here.

TONER: Dr. Michael McBride heads the PTSD treatment program at the Milwaukee VA. He acknowledges Veteran Quest is filling a need, but is concerned the involvement of multiple providers could complicate the road map to recovery.

DR. MICHAEL MCBRIDE: This can be a lethal condition. And we've seen that unfortunate with many tragedies in our community and across the country. So we have to be very thoughtful and caring about the quality of care that we're providing.

TONER: Veteran Quest clinic's Kathy Anderson recognizes the need to keep the lines of communication open.

ANDERSON: I have a client that might be telling the psychiatrist one thing and telling me another thing, which is why there has to be that communication.

TONER: McBride says while the VHA system is not perfect, it has improved at the Milwaukee hospital, where vets seeking counseling are seen within 14 days.

MCBRIDE: So I think the concern about: I can't get an appointment at the VA, I frankly have trouble believing that now.

TONER: As more veterans return home, caseloads at both organizations continue to grow. Veteran Quest says it's already outgrown its one-year-old facility. For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.

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