What Are the Barriers Preventing Veterans from Receiving Quality Mental Health Care?


Thomas J. Berger
Ph.D., Executive Director of the Veterans Health Council for Vietnam Veterans of America

CFYM continues our series examining the state of mental health care provided in VA hospitals and centers. In today’s post Tom Berger, Executive Director of the Veterans Health Council for Vietnam Veterans of America examines whether or not the VA is meeting its own policies outlining how long a vet should wait to receive a mental health evaluation.

First, we must recognize that the Veterans Health Administration (VA) has made some significant progress in its efforts to improve the quality of mental health care for America’s veterans. For example, although not all mental health clinical staff has yet been trained, VA should be commended for its system-wide adoption (finally) of evidence-based cognitive behavioral treatment modalities for PTSD. In addition, the development of various web-based program applications and social media mental health outreach campaigns reflect a much better effort to reach America’s veterans. But while these efforts are laudable, there are reasons to believe they have not gone far enough, especially when accessing the VA mental health diagnoses and treatment programs.

As far back as April 2012, an Inspector General (IG)’s report concluded that the VA does not have a reliable or accurate method of determining whether they are providing veterans timely access to mental health care services and that the VA is unable to make informed decisions on how to improve the provision of mental health care to veteran patients due to the lack of meaningful access data. This is absolutely unacceptable

Does internal reporting tell the full story?

VA policy requires that all first-time patients requesting mental health services receive an initial evaluation within 24 hours, and a comprehensive diagnostic appointment within two weeks. For years now, VA officials have claimed that 95 percent of its new patients were seen in that time frame. But a 2013 IG report called those calculations confused and inaccurate. By IG researchers’ count, fewer than half of those patients were seen within the 14-day requirement. The average wait for a full evaluation among the rest was 50 days.

The report also sharply criticized VA staffers for not following proper scheduling procedures, further confusing the data collection. For new patients, scheduling clerks frequently stated they used the next available appointment slot as the desired appointment date for new patients, thereby showing deceptively short wait times. For established patients, medical providers scheduled return appointments based on known availability, rather than the patient’s clinical need. The report found that the VA’s system for measuring waiting times for evaluations “had no real value” because it measured how long it took the department to conduct the evaluation, not how long the patient waited to receive it. As a result, the report said, even if a patient waited weeks for an appointment, the VA could say there was zero waiting time if it completed the evaluation on the same day it was conducted.

Is provider capacity to blame?

Although IG investigators also blamed some of the long wait times on shortages in mental health staff throughout the department and noted that from 2005 to 2010 mental health services increased their staff by 46 percent. However, according to the report “VHA’s mental health care service staff still did not believe they had enough staff to handle the increased workload and consistently see patients within 14 days of the desired dates.” These flaws in the VA’s appointment system has for example, led to an average wait time of 28 days for patients at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center and over 80 days at the Spokane VA center in Washington state. And in several extreme cases reported in the media, lack of immediate access to mental health services has resulted in veteran suicides.

Although the IG recommended, among other things, that the VA revise its method of measuring waiting times and analyze its staffing levels to ensure that it is able to abide by its own policies, it remains unclear as to how this will be accomplished so that VA facility and VISN directors can no longer “game” the system. Under Secretary for Health, Dr. Robert A. Petzel, said in a letter to the IG that the VA generally agreed with the recommendations and that it would initiate a timeliness review of its entire medical system, not just the four regions analyzed by the inspector general. Thus, we are forced to ask the questions: Precisely how will this be accomplished so as to finally end this despicable practice, and exactly what productivity and performance measures will be utilized to determine whether the VA’s measurements and analyses are real and correct?

Your Turn

  • Have you had to wait more than 24 hours to receive an initial mental health evaluation?
  • How long did you have to wait to receive a full evaluation after your initial appointment?
  • How can the VA centers and hospitals improve on wait time between appointments?

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having worked as a civilian contractor for the military, i.e., army, my experience at the clinic was that patients who requested an appointment were seen almost immediately.  If the patient required medication, after a few sessions with the client, I would then refer him/her to the psych doc in the clinic for evaluation and meds if needed.  This outpatient clinic was affiliated with Ft. Belvoir in N. Va., which also had psych/mental health services for  military personnel and their families.  So I really can't address the VA Hospital situation except to say it is over-burden with beaurcracy, too many levels involved for military folks and their families to receive much needed mental health services along with the issue of confidentiality, especially for family members who might have a son/daughter that wants to join the military but is concerned the military will find out they have received mental health tx. This was something I dealt with when working with families who were assigned to the Pentagon. Before Walter Reed Hospital closed, it had a terrific reputation for care for all vets and now that it has merged with Bethesda Naval Hospital, I don't hear the same thumbs up.  A friend of mine who is retired military, his wife stopped going to Walter Reed when it moved into Bethesda Naval because the care wasn't that good, too much paperwork, beauracratic nonsence and she wanted to stay with the doc who was treating her at Walter Reed.  He had transferred to Ft. Belvoir, so she continued to receive her tx there until she passed away about 6 months ago.

I doubt very much if changing the CEO of the VA system is going to make much of a difference.  What's needed now is a complete "cleaning of house", change in attitude and behaviors and obviously elimination of so much paperwork and government intervention that isn't always needed.  I could be wrong about the above comments, but I don't think I am.   One positive thing about the VA system is how is does its coding for billing.  The ACA has become a nightmare for those few mental health professionals who continue to treat patients and the ACA needs to adopt the VA Coding system.


If you would like to continue the discussion with someone who may be able to offer some suggestions, please feel free to contact us at: infocareforyourmind.org


after retiring from the MC in 2004 i was diagnosed with Bipolar type 2. however, while i was on active duty i was told it was chronic depression.. since then i have been to the VA for inpatient care three times, and once at a civilian mental health hospital. over the years i had been given a large number of "mood stabilizers" both on and off-label use. as a result i have developed tardive dyskinasia and cannot take any type of mood stabilizers. therefore, i have been going through bipolar cycles with intermittent mixed states and co-existing conditions that include anxiety, panic attacks, and migraines. after a lot of research i discovered the benefits of having a psychiatric working dog. however, i discovered the VA only provides working dogs for vets who have physical disabilities. because i am unable to work due to the fact that the bipolar and co-existing conditions make me unreliable, even with part time jobs. since i was misdiagnosed during my time on active duty, the VA has no proof that i was bipolar during 21 years of active service, so i do not fit the criteria for disability. early in my diagnosis i did qualify for chapter 31 benefits because i am 50 percent disabled due to an unrelated surgery while on active duty ( i do receive  disability income from that). as it stands now, i do not qualify for the two basic needs that would significantly improve the quality of my life -- a psychiatric working dog and an increase in my VA disability income. is there anything on the horizon that may help my circumstances? i will be 49 soon and would like to have something resembling a "normal" life while there's still time. thank you.


Thanks for sharing your success.  It is good to know that you have access to quality mental health care.  Let's all work together to be sure all of our returning Veterans are as fortunate as you. 


I must say, I feel very lucky. I use the Harry S Truman veterans hospital in Columbia MO. They are most excellent there. My mental health team is awesome! I see my psychologist every two weeks and my psychiatrist at least once a month.