WASHINGTON (CN) - With a new report on how long veterans wait for access to mental health services, a committee hearing Wednesday revealed several members of the U.S. Senate losing patience with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The Wednesday hearing of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs came on the same day that the Government Accountability Office flagged inaccuracies in the VA's reports on how long veterans wait for access to mental health services.
Nicholas Karnaze, a former U.S. Marine and current small-business owner, testified that he isn't sure why it took a year for him to get access to mental health services after he separated from the military.
Under questioning by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Karnaze said wait times compound the stigma that traditionally comes with mental health disorders, making it hard for veterans to get the care they need.
"A lot of people want help, they need help," Karnaze said during his opening statement. "As a leader of marines I feel it is my responsibility to help with that. I truly believe that when we get the right access to care in a timely manner, we will find that we're going to see a reduction in veteran suicides and we are going to have healthier and happier families."
Dr. Debra Draper, who testified for the Government Accountability Office, told the committee her agency's report found the VA often measures wait times as the time between the veteran's requested date for an appointment and the actual appointment taking place.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said this measure doesn't make sense.
"When I call for a doctor's appointment, when I call, and they schedule me on the 20th, that's a 20-day wait if I call the first of the month," Tester said. "See what I'm saying? I've got what you've got, and I know that you're meeting your metrics, but that isn't really giving us an idea."
Dr. Michael Davies defended the use of this metric by arguing the scheduling system the VA uses does not allow them to measure wait times in a simpler way.
The claim failed to mollify Sen. Richard Blumenthal.
"This problem is systemic," Blumenthal, D-Conn., said during the hearing. "It is one of leadership and management."
Karnaze and Dean Maiers, a former member of the U.S. Navy, criticized wait times at the VA, but said the actual care they received was important.
In Maiers' case, it might have saved his life. He told the committee he tried twice to kill himself and was homeless for three years before getting access to care at a facility in New Haven, Conn., that pairs veterans with a peer counselor and puts all of their care in one place.
"Every single veteran coming home deserves this program," Maiers said. "Every state in this great country needs to have this program implemented."
Maiers and Karnaze told the committee the wait times are not the only problem with the VA's health care. Both veterans received messages from the VA threatening to cancel their benefits after they missed appointments.
Maiers got one such note after he missed an appointment because he was in the hospital.
The veterans also said VA facilities often did not have their medical records. Karnaze said he left a facility in Wilmington, N.C., because the facility didn't have any of his health records.
The members of the committee acknowledge the VA has improved in recent years, but insisted something must change within the VA to get the agency up to standards.
"We've got to be better than the private sector," Tester said. "To say that our access times are as good and our treatments are as good, that's not good enough. We've got to be better."
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