VA Struggles to Meet Demand for Mental Health Treatment

During past wars and conflicts, being on the lookout for soldiers with mental conditions was not as prevalent as it is today. Predominantly, if soldiers were diagnosed with something in service, it was a personality disorder and they were processed out. Mental health professionals were not on the lookout for PTSD like they are today. Although PTSD can manifest itself years later, because of all of the research — since, for example, the Vietnam War — there are active duty soldiers that are actually being diagnosed with PTSD and treated while they are still serving.

However, with increased knowledge of the condition comes increased diagnoses. And it is not just limited to PTSD. Since those men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan are not afterthoughts like their counterparts of the Vietnam era, the question remains whether the VA can meet the demand for mental health services. Recent numbers suggest that it is a struggle for them to do so.

40% Increase in L.A. Veterans Seeking Mental Health Care

Los Angeles California is one place where they have seen an uptick in veterans seeking medical treatment. The VA Greater L.A. Healthcare System includes the West L.A. Medical Center and 10 outpatient clinics. Within that system there was a 40% increase in the number of veterans seeking mental health care between 2007 and 2013. Within the VA Long Beach Healthcare System, there has been nearly a 60% increase over the same period. According to Dr. Lawrence Albers, chief of mental health for the Long Beach VA System, they have been enrolling the veterans at a very high rate, prompting them to increase their staff and available programs. This includes hiring almost 100 additional mental health clinical and support staff since 2005. The Greater L.A. System has likewise increased the number of psychiatrists and psychologists on their staff by over 12% recently.

Despite the staff increases, it has not been enough to meet the demand of the area veterans. The Greater L.A. VA has been having to refer veterans to psychotherapists within the community because they cannot handle it. Additionally, there is a non-profit group called The Soldier Project that is meant as a safety net for veterans who do not want to use the VA for treatment or they cannot use it. In 2013, though, it received 65 referrals from local VA. What is worse is that it has received nearly that many in just the first part of this year.

“I suspect that it does have to do with the fact that the VA is completely overwhelmed,” said The Soldiers Project founder Judith Broder. “They can’t provide what they’ve been tasked to provide and it’s not because of ill will,” she said. “There aren’t enough people, there’s not enough time, a big bureaucracy moves slowly.” She said The Soldiers Project used to be able to connect a vet with a mental health counselor within 24 hours. Now, with the increased caseload, the wait can last up to two weeks.

The Demand for PTSD Treatment is There, But VA Resources Cannot Match It

This is but a small sample size, but it is likely representative of what is going on nationwide. The demand is there, but the resources cannot match it. For those veterans that have filed claims for service-connected mental impairments, delays in treatment could have an effect on their claims. First of all, if a solid diagnosis is missing, then difficulty in getting in for an appointment could make the difference between getting approved and denied. The same goes for a nexus statement from one’s doctor that links the present diagnosis to an event or stressor in service. The second issue is whether a lack of treatment will be negatively perceived. One client of mine is in between mental health providers at the VA. Not by his choice, but because the one he had been seeing left the facility and he had to wait to be assigned a new one. A year later, and with the help of a local TV station, he finally has been assigned someone new. The fear, though, is that when rating his service-connected PTSD, the VA will perceive that his lack of treatment for a year was a sign that his condition was improving.

Disability Claims for Service-Connected Mental Conditions

If you are trying to win a claim for a service-connected mental condition and you are concerned about how your (lack of) treatment may impact your claim, contact an experienced advocate at Veterans Help Group to see if we may be of assistance.

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