At the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) we are constantly seeking ways to increase access to quality mental health care for all of America’s Veterans. We know that when we identify and treat, people get better. Veterans have earned access to the very best care. That is our commitment, and we will continue to improve every day.
Veterans’ Options and Entry Points for Care
Veterans deserve to know their options when it comes to mental health care. VA operates the largest integrated health care delivery system in the country, with over 1,700 sites of care. Veterans can schedule appointments through our mental health clinics at VA medical centers across the country, but that’s not the only way to get treatment.
We also offer mental health care through our primary care clinics and our 300 Vet Centers, where combat Veterans can seek readjustment counseling anonymously in a casual, non-clinical setting. In places where we do not have facilities or services, we work with community providers to ensure Veterans receive the care they need.
Any Veteran in crisis should know that we have trained mental health professionals in our emergency rooms and answering the phones on our Veterans Crisis Line, where callers receive confidential support 24/7. Just call 1-800-273-8255, press 1; chat online; or send a text message to 838255. We’re here to help you.
Over the last few years, we’ve enhanced services and doubled our staff at the Veterans Crisis Line. Since the Crisis Line was created in 2007, it has received over 890,000 calls from Veterans, Servicemembers and their families. Over 30,000 of those callers were rescued from suicides in progress because our mental health providers were standing by to help.
New Staff Hired to Help Veterans
In order to increase access to mental health care for Veterans, Servicemembers, and their families, the Veterans Health Administration has successfully hired more than 1,600 additional mental health professionals. This means a ten percent increase in staffing for outpatient mental health services. As these clinicians are trained and begin to see patients, we believe these new hires will help us reduce the wait times for appointments. We will continue look at these access points closely to identify places where we need additional staff to better serve Veterans.
This week we also announced that we’ve hired more than 800 Peer Specialists and Peer Apprentices to improve access to mental health services. Peer Specialists and Peer Support Apprentices are a special group of Veterans and transitioning military personnel who have joined VA’s mental health care teams. They have successfully dealt with their own mental health recovery for at least one year. When Veterans can talk with fellow Veterans about these issues, we believe they are more likely to get the treatment they need and deserve.
Improving Timely Access for Veterans
Some recent reports focus on the time that new VA patients wait to be seen for mental health problems. We all agree that Veterans seeking a mental health appointment deserve to be treated in a timely manner and we are working hard every day to improve.
That is why we launched our hiring initiative in April of 2012 and established goals for patients to be seen within 14 days of their desired appointment date. This 14-day standard is one to which we hold ourselves, a higher standard than other health care systems.
It’s also important to know that Veterans who are in ongoing care comprise the majority of our appointments, about 90 percent. More than 95 percent of these appointments are scheduled within the time frames agreed upon by providers and patients. New patients, or patients who are seeking care for a new problem, represent less than ten percent of our mental health appointments, and all patients are screened to ensure emergent needs are met immediately. About two thirds of new patients are seen within 2 weeks – we know we need to improve to better serve our new patients.
VA completed over 18 million mental health appointments in 2013. We strive to ensure that the Veterans we serve are treated with dignity and experience the high quality of VA mental health services. The number of Veterans entering treatment continues to grow, and we welcome them with open arms. Last year, VA increased the number of Veterans seen within mental health programs by an additional five percent, while continuing to improve the timeliness of services.
Access for Veterans to mental health care can always improve. We understand and appreciate the frustration some Veterans feel when we are not able to immediately meet their needs and our providers feel the same frustration. At the same time we can say that we are headed in the right direction and dedicated to taking care of America’s Veterans as compassionately, efficiently, professionally and quickly as possible.
Dr. Mary Schohn is Director of Mental Health Operations for the VA’s Veterans Health Administration