Lack of mental health services at center of VA scandal

When the news of the scandal within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs first broke, media outlets and industry pundits immediately began searching for someone to blame. Eventually, the nation’s sights settled on former VA secretary Eric Shinseki, who later resigned as a result, ending his tenure as President Barack Obama’s longest-serving cabinet member.

Though it may be easy to pin the struggles of a health care system that deliberately mismanaged patient appointments on a single party, there are obviously larger issues beyond the focus of the VA scandal. According to several recent comments by members of Congress and industry experts, the VA scandal is about delivering quality care to patients, as well as what happens when that goes wrong.

Moving past Shinseki
Though nearly every member of Congress praised the his military service and record as a public servant, Shinseki was not spared his resignation. But the problems plaguing the VA are far from solved, and some politicians are pushing for reform.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), chair of the Senate VA committee, told Politico that overly strict requirements and a lack of funding and supplies ultimately handcuffed the VA, and more comprehensive support is needed in the future.

“We need one of two things,” Sanders told the news source. “Either we relax these requirements, or we need to say, ‘we don’t have the resources.'”

Sanders also pointed to the fact that there are an estimated 2 million veterans returning to civilian life after developing mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder. This is not good news, considering the VA health care system has struggled  to supply adequate treatment to those with mental health conditions in the past. One veteran in North Carolina had to wait 104 days at Durham VA Medical Center before he was able to schedule an appointment with a mental health professional, the Los Angeles Times reported.

These two examples indicate that the VA may struggle to provide effective mental health services while under duress to supply other medical needs as well. However, even more frustrating may be the attempts by VA administrators to take hundreds of patients out of official waiting lists without notice, effective lengthening wait times by months.

Physician shortages mean long waits
The most recent scandal news shines a necessary light on improper practices within the VA health care system, but the NYT explained that even before the cover-up that led to Shinseki’s resignation, for years, physician shortages among VA doctors has lead to long wait times.

Phyllis Hollenbeck, M.D., a primary care physician who transferred to a VA hospital in Jackson, Mississippi in 2008, told the news source of her 13-hour workdays, high colleague turnover rate and a physician shortage so critical that some veterans would be assigned to a doctor that no longer worked in the system.

“The doctors are good but they are overworked, and they feel inadequate in the face of the inordinate demands made on them,” Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, told the NYT. “The exploding workload is suffocating them.”

The veteran population is expected to grow in coming years, both due to returning soldiers and a generation of elderly baby boomers in greater need of medical care. As the VA attempts to clean itself up after this most recent scandal, it better begin planning for greater access to mental health services before it is too late.

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