- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 10, 2014

After two deployments with the Marine Corps left him depressed, anxious and unable to hold a job, Sgt. Clay Hunt appealed his 30 percent disability rating with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA approved his appeal on the post-traumatic stress diagnosis 18 months later, but it was too late for the 28-year-old former infantryman and sniper. He died March 31, 2011, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

“Five weeks after his death, Clay’s appeal finally went through and the VA rated Clay’s PTS 100 percent,” Susan Selke, Hunt’s mother, told the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday.

Mrs. Selke was one of the parents who testified about how difficult it was to schedule appointments and how doctors’ lack of interest in building trust made mental health problems worse for veterans.

She said the VA health care facility in Houston wouldn’t refill a prescription from the VA center in Grand Junction, Colo., leaving her son without medication.

The VA has faced accusations for months of poor patient care, unreasonably long wait times and altered data to make wait times appear shorter. Analysts have said the records are so bad that the government can’t accurately estimate the cost of resolving the problems.

Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, introduced a bill Thursday named after Hunt that would offer a student loan repayment pilot program to recruit psychiatrists for VA facilities and would require annual evaluations of mental health programs at the VA and Defense Departments.

It also would change how other-than-honorable discharges are reviewed if they are related to undiagnosed mental health issues. Troops discharged for bad behavior as a result of PTSD or traumatic brain injury do not now have access to mental health care at the VA, Mr. Miller said.

Dr. Maureen McCarthy, deputy chief patient care services officer at the VA, said she couldn’t trust the numbers her own department provides, so she couldn’t give an estimate of how long veterans wait for mental health appointments.

Congress is working on other legislation to reduce waits at VA medical facilities by opening up private care if appointments aren’t made in a timely manner or if a veteran lives too far from a VA center. House and Senate negotiators have met once to work out a compromise between the two chambers’ bills.

Mrs. Selke said veterans may not want to go to private doctors even if the VA covers the medical costs. She said her son refused to see a private psychiatrist, saying he earned the VA care and wanted to see a doctor who had been at war.

Some veterans didn’t have a choice.

Daniel Somers, who served two tours in Iraq in the Army National Guard, spoke with a private psychiatrist after his doctor at the VA retired and he was told that no one else was available, said his mother, Jean Somers.

He killed himself in June 2013 after “six futile and tragic years trying to access the VA health and benefits until finally collapsing under the weight of his own despair,” his father, Howard Somers, told Congress.

“Literally, no one at the facility advocated for him,” his father said.

Although each family’s struggles were unique, all agreed that the VA needed a massive change to make veteran care the first priority of every staff member.

Retired Army Sgt. Josh Renschler, who faced mental health issues and traumatic brain injury, said he often would become confused or lost in chaotic VA facilities and couldn’t find a friendly staff member to help direct him.

“I get better customer service at Best Buy,” he said.

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