Long waits at the VA for mental health care

EL PASO, Texas – Nick D’Amico, a deeply troubled Army veteran, had been seeing a counselor every other week. But he found it next to impossible to get a follow-up appointment at the El Paso VA with a psychiatrist who could adjust his medication, according to his mother.

The best the system could offer, she says, was a half-year wait for a teleconference with a Veterans Affairs psychiatrist in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

That appointment was still two months away when D’Amico, 45, left his wallet, phone, watch and Desert Storm hat at home and committed suicide by driving off a cliff outside El Paso last September.

“It’s shameful. It’s disgusting. It’s got to stop,” says his mother, Bonnie D’Amico.

For years, veterans have complained about maddening waits for mental health services at VA medical centers, and for years federal officials have responded by hiring more clinicians and expanding programs. This week, a devastating internal investigation that looked at wait times for all sorts of care across the VA system showed that the agency hasn’t solved the problem.

It found, for example, that new mental health patients were routinely forced to wait a month or more to start treatment. Not one of the 141 medical systems examined was able to meet the department’s goal of getting all new mental health patients an appointment within 14 days. At 30 facilities, the average wait topped 40 days.

For D’Amico and other patients, the delays have had real-world consequences, according to family members, vets and experts.

Dr. Paul Summergrad, a psychiatry professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine and president of the American Psychiatric Association, said that aside from delaying needed care, the long waits destroy any sense of connection between the patient and the provider, making successful treatment less likely.

“We have a suicide crisis. We have a post-traumatic stress crisis. We have a traumatic brain injury crisis, all going on at the same time,” Summergrad said. “To have them wait is unconscionable.”

Andrew Danecki, a former Marine corporal who served in Afghanistan, got a taste of the waiting game in 2011 when he sought treatment at the Durham VA Medical Center in North Carolina for symptoms that included anger, depression and crippling fatigue.

Danecki said he was able to start seeing a counselor in a reasonably short amount of time and eventually got in to see a psychiatrist, but when the doctor suggested he undergo a sleep study to help understand why he was so exhausted, it took eight months to get the appointment.