Some newly enrolled veterans seeking a primary care appointment at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) wait more than 90 days before they see a provider, and the agency’s way of calculating wait times understates them, according to a new report by a government watchdog office. “This most recent work on veterans’ access to primary care expands further the litany of VA health care deficiencies and weaknesses that we have identified over the years,” Debra Draper, director of the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) health-care team, said in testimony to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “As of April 1, 2016, there were about 90 GAO recommendations regarding veterans’ health care awaiting action by VHA … (including) more than a dozen recommendations to address weaknesses in the provision and oversight of veterans’ access to timely primary and specialty care, including mental health care. “Until VHA can make meaningful progress in addressing these and other recommendations,” she added, “the quality and safety of health care for our nation’s veterans is at risk.”
The new GAO report looked at wait times for newly enrolled veterans seeking primary care appointments at six VA medical centers around the country. Among a random sample of 180 of those veterans, 60 who requested care had not been seen at all by primary care providers, in some cases because the VA never contacted them or because they were left off an eligibility list in error.
A study showing that women veterans commit suicide at six times the rate of civilian women has prompted U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and colleagues to propose legislation requiring the VA to develop gender-specific suicide prevention programs.
The “Female Veterans Suicide Prevention Act” would expand the Department of Veterans Affairs’ annual evaluation of mental health and suicide-prevention programs to include data specific to female veterans. The act also would require the VA to determine which programs are the most effective for female veterans. “With suicide among women veterans happening at an alarming rate, (the proposed bill) will help save lives by ensuring VA is providing the care, counseling and outreach these veterans need,” Blumenthal said. Co-sponsors include Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Joni Ernst (R-IA), and Sherrod Brown (D-OH).
Legislation pushed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to strengthen suicide prevention programs for veterans won Senate approval Tuesday and is expected to become the first veterans’ bill of 2015 to be signed by President Obama. The measure – dubbed the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, for a Texas Marine who killed himself in 2011 – won House approval last month. Its passage was blocked last year by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn, who has since retired from the Senate. The bill will require the Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs to submit to independent reviews of their suicide prevention programs. It also establishes a program to repay loans to psychiatrists who agree to work with veterans, improves VA collaboration with non-profit agencies, and calls for more online and community outreach mental health services for veterans. In the Senate, Blumenthal, ranking member of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, worked with Republican John McCain, R-Ariz., to expedite the bill’s approval.
Justin Eldridge’s family will never fully understand why nothing seemed to ease the anguish of the young Marine and father of five, as he wrestled with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury after a deployment to Afghanistan in 2004-05. Despite stints in VA hospitals and an array of medications, he killed himself in his Waterford home on Oct. 28, 2013. He was 31. “He did his part – he followed the treatment they gave him,” said his widow, Joanna Eldridge, who is now raising their children alone.
It’s been nine years since Eunice Ramirez served in Iraq, but she still suffers from war wounds – post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, respiratory problems and frequent crying triggered by her memories. Suzanna Smaldone, who also returned home from Iraq in 2005, lives in constant pain and can’t bring herself to talk about her war injuries. Cheryl Eberg, home from Iraq for seven years, counsels other veterans, but their war stories can trigger her own mental health issues. Though it’s not unusual for veterans of both sexes to struggle for years with war injuries when they return home, officials say that women veterans have their own unique challenges, which can make their transition to civilian life particularly hard. “The trauma and complexity of these injuries and disabilities far outweigh anything we can comprehend in the civilian world,” said Linda Schwartz, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Veterans Affairs.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs suppressed information that shows links between health problems of veterans and the dangers they were exposed to in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf War, according to a whistleblower who testified to a House panel Wednesday afternoon. Steven Coughlin described an “epidemic of serious ethical problems” in the VA Office of Public Health, where he worked for 4 ½ years as a senior epidemiologist until December. “If the studies produce results that do not support Office of Public Health’s unwritten policy, they do not release them,” said Coughlin, in testimony to the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Oversight and Subcommittee. “This applies to data regarding adverse health consequences of environmental exposures, such as burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, and toxic exposures in the Gulf War. On the rare occasions when embarrassing study results are released, data are manipulated to make them unintelligible,” he said.