Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Lawmakers grill officials over veterans' mental health care

Lawmakers grill officials over veterans' mental health care

1 hour ago

WASHINGTON (AFP) — US Senators on Wednesday grilled Veterans Affairs Administration (VA) officials over an email branding soldiers as "compensation-seekers" and urging staff to make fewer diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Citing 'compensation-seeking veterans,' the email in question encourages VA practitioners to avoid diagnosing veterans with PTSD in order to save time and money," Senator Patty Murray told a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs committee.

"This email is a sad reminder that this administration's attempt to hide the true cost of war has begun to affect the way VA employees view their work," Murray said.

Mental health specialist Norma Perez sent out the email in March to staff at the VA medical center in Texas, where she was a coordinator of the PTSD clinical team.

Senators at the hearing cited the email as saying: "Given that we are having more and more compensation-seeking veterans, I would like to see you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out."

Perez said the aim of her email was to urge staff to be "more sensitive to what the veterans are going through." She did not explain how the email was intended to achieve that.

Other VA officials praised the veterans' agency in their testimonies and highlighted the enormous workload that is weighing it down as claims for PTSD snowball.

Since 1999, the number of US veterans receiving disability compensation for PTSD has increased nearly three-fold, from 120,000 to nearly 329,000, Patrick Dunne, VA under secretary for benefits, told the hearing.

Two-thirds were veterans of the Vietnam war, while the second biggest group were 37,460 veterans of the ongoing war in Iraq, he said.

Dr Michael Kussman, the VA under secretary for health, said Perez's email had been "taken out of context" and extolled the excellent mental health care provided by the VA.

The senators slammed the VA officials for not taking the "invisible" mental injuries of war as seriously as the obvious physical ones, and for "treating veterans in a cavalier manner."

"We need recognition from the VA that 'invisible' injuries are wreaking havoc on our soldiers and their families," said Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the state with the most US fatalities per capita in Iraq, according to the senator's staff and press reports.

"Men and women see their lives fall apart when they come back home from this complex war and don't receive the care they deserve. We need the culture of the VA to change," he said.

Murray deplored that the VA was seen as "more of an obstacle than an ally" by soldiers seeking care and support after deployment.

Committee chair Daniel Akaka condemned the staggering numbers of soldiers returning from war with invisible wounds.

"With so many troops returning from multiple tours with various mental health issues, VA must have the credibility, resources and commitment to ensure that veterans are properly treated and compensated," Akaka said.

According to a study released in April by the RAND Corporation about 300,000 of the 1.6 million US troops who have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002 suffer from PTSD or depression, but only around half have sought medical care for the conditions.

The study estimated the cost of treating soldiers diagnosed with PTSD or depression in the first two years following their return from Iraq or Afghanistan at up to 6.2 billion dollars.

The Pentagon last month issued data showing diagnoses of PTSD among troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan had climbed from 9,549 in 2006 to 13,951 in 2007.

On Wednesday, the Pentagon said it is recruiting government public health workers to offset a shortage in mental health care providers for troops returning from war with mental problems.
Lawmakers grill officials over veterans' mental health care

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