U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Armed Services and Budget Committees, today questioned Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki on backlogged requests to the VA, including serious delays in mental health care treatment Virginia veterans have experienced due to a loophole Kaine recently learned of in a website application form.
"I am kind of stunned as I hear that we did not have a credible system for dealing electronically with vets claims until you started to do that work in 2009, 2010 when we were already seven years into a war. No wonder we're having such challenges," said Kaine.
"I had a recent experience with a veteran in the Hampton Roads area who had emailed the local VA seeking mental health assistance and was given an appointment 8 or 9 months into the future," said Kaine. "When we checked it out, what we found is that if he had called by phone there was an effective triage to determine if he needed mental health treatment right away, but if you emailed, which frankly is a little easier to do for some people who are trying to overcome a stigma, there was no triage done on emails coming in seeking help."
At the hearing, Kaine stressed that once a veteran has asked for help, especially mental health services, a backlog of months is unacceptable and poses risks to those veterans.
"Once somebody gets over that burden of saying I need help, if you don't take advantage of their request for help when they ask -- 6 months later bad things could have happened or they may be in a mindset where they are self-medicating and feel like they don't need help," Kaine said.
Earlier this month, Kaine wrote to the Hampton Veterans Medical Center on behalf of a Virginian who requested mental health treatment from the VA via website form and was forced to wait ten months for treatment. Veterans are normally screened for post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues to determine whether their case merits expedited attention. However, veterans are not prompted for these screenings when applying via website form. As a result, some of the veterans with backlogged claims are those with pressing mental health injuries that would normally receive expedited treatment.
Following the hearing, Kaine detailed his concerns about this case and others like it to Shinseki.
"[W]e can all agree when a veteran takes a step to ask for help, to self-identify that she or he has an issue, it is of the utmost importance to be seen as soon as possible, and 10 months is unacceptable," Kaine wrote in a follow-up letter. "I hope I can work with the VA to determine why there may be a difference in the screening process for PTSD and for expedited mental health help, depending on the manner in which an appointment is requested. I also hope you will work with me to make any necessary changes to ensure this situation doesn't happen again."
In April, Kaine met with groups of veterans at a roundtable hosted by Blue Star Families and at American Legion Halls in Lynchburg and Richmond. In addition, Kaine has visited the McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond and the Salem VA Medical Center this year to discuss improvements to services offered to veterans and best practices that can be used across the country. These facilities are charged with serving more than 800,000 veterans in the Commonwealth.
The full text of Kaine's letter to Secretary Shinseki is below and the letter is attached:
April 23, 2013
The Honorable Eric Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
Thank you for testifying before the Senate Budget Committee today.
I wanted to follow up on an issue I raised with you at today's hearing. While traveling in Virginia earlier this month, I had the opportunity to meet with members of Blue Star Families. I encountered a recent combat veteran who waited nearly ten months to receive mental health counseling. This veteran had struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and finally reached the point he was ready to ask for mental health counseling.
My understanding is that when a veteran calls a VA medical center for an appointment, there is a thorough screening process in place to determine if a veteran fought in Afghanistan or Iraq. Specific questions help screen for PTSD, and help determine those veterans who need more immediate help. When that determination is made, the process is expedited.
The veteran I met sought an appointment through a website. It appears that the same rigorous screening process didn't seem to be in place for those who seek help from a VA website, as opposed to calling for an appointment. Again, the veteran I met indicated he submitted an appointment request online, and waited 10 months for an appointment.
As you noted during the hearing, we can all agree when a veteran takes a step to ask for help, to self-identify that she or he has an issue, it is of the utmost importance to be seen as soon as possible, and 10 months is unacceptable. I hope I can work with the VA to determine why there may be a difference in the screening process for PTSD and for expedited mental health help, depending on the manner in which an appointment is requested. I also hope you will work with me to make any necessary changes to ensure this situation doesn't happen again.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.