- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2014

Veterans are twice as likely to have difficulty scheduling a mental health appointment at the VA versus those seeking care at a non-VA provider, a survey of recent veterans found.

The annual survey from Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American showed that 68 percent of recent vets who seek mental health services at Veterans Affairs facilities have had some trouble scheduling an appointment, compared to just 31 percent who have had difficulty setting up an appointment with a private provider.

“To some degree we weren’t surprised by the numbers that came out, but to some degree we were,” said Jackie Maffucci, the research director at IAVA. “That’s a really large number when you’re thinking about it over 2/3 are saying they’re experiencing challenges scheduling appoints.”

Ms. Maffucci said staff asked questions about access to VA mental health services in this year’s survey to get a more concrete idea of how many veterans it affected after hearing horror stories from members.

“Anecdotally we’ve been hearing from these veterans for years the challenges with getting access to VA health care, including mental health, but also once they get into care, they’re very satisfied with the care,” she said.

The survey supports findings that show veterans are satisfied with VA care once they can get into the system: 72 percent said they were happy with their VA care for mental health, while just 20 percent were unhappy.

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More than 2,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan participated in the survey, the results of which were released last week. The survey polled the top priorities and challenges facing recent vets in an effort to guide IAVA’s policy efforts for the coming year.

Some of that difficulty in scheduling appointments may be the fault of the VA, where corrupt scheduling practices have been widely found, but it also may be partly due to veterans’ busy schedules, said Ms. Maffucci.

“These are individuals who are working, going to school, have families,” she said. “I would imagine that would also factor in. Trying to get an appointment at a time it fits in with your schedule is probably a challenging thing.”

Of recent veterans with mental health issues, almost a quarter are not seeking any care, the survey found. One of the top reasons veterans with issues aren’t seeking care: difficulty getting time off work to go to an appointment.

While the majority like the quality of care once they get an appointment, 46 percent veterans don’t think the VA does a good job reaching out about what sort of mental health help is available. In general, only 53 percent of those in the survey feel positively about the VA.

Members of IAVA filled out the survey during February, before CNN reports in April on secret wait lists at the Phoenix VA hospital put the issue of the VA health system on the national front burner. A whistleblower first charged that veterans were dying while waiting for care on secret lists, and later investigations found widespread scheduling problems, data manipulation and whistleblower retaliation.

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Despite that, the majority of veterans still felt that while the former Secretary Eric Shinseki cared about veterans, he was not doing enough to help them. Mr. Shinseki stepped down earlier this year amid the wait list scandals that have plagued the department.

Robert McDonald, a former Procter & Gamble executive and graduate of West Point, is expected to be confirmed by the Senate early this week to be the next leader of the department.

• Jacqueline Klimas can be reached at jklimas@washingtontimes.com.

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