Friday, June 6, 2008

Lawmakers grill officials over veterans' mental health care

Lawmakers grill officials over veterans' mental health care

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US senators on Wednesday grilled Veterans Affairs Administration (VA) officials over an email that urged staff to make fewer diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and branded troubled soldiers seeking help as "compensation-seekers."

"Given that we are having more and more compensation seeking veterans, I'd like to suggest that you refrain from giving a diagnosis of PTSD straight out," read the electronic message, signed by mental health specialist Norma Perez.

The e-mail, was sent in March to staff at the VA medical center in Texas, where Perez was a coordinator of the PTSD clinical team.

AFP was shown a copy of the e-mail.

"Additionally, we really don't have the time to do the extensive testing that should be done to determine PTSD," read the message.

Senator Patty Murray told a hearing of the Senate Veterans' Affairs committee that the email was "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."

The VA "should be adding to services for our weary, traumatized veterans," not seeking to cut back, Murray said.

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

Other VA officials praised the veterans' agency in their testimony, and highlighted the enormous workload that is weighing the office down as PTSD claims snowball.

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

Two-thirds were veterans of the Vietnam war, which ended in 1975, while the second biggest group were 37,460 veterans of the ongoing war in Iraq, he said.

Michael Kussman, the VA under secretary for health, extolled what he said was the agency's excellent mental health care, and said Perez's email had been "taken out of context."

But 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 "more of an obstacle than an ally" for 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 served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD or depression, but only around half have sought medical care.

The study estimated the cost of treating soldiers diagnosed with PTSD or depression in the first two years following their return from war 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 was recruiting government public health workers to offset a shortage in mental health care providers for troops returning from war with mental problems.

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