(Washington, D.C.) – Today, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee sent two letters regarding the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health care wait times. The first letter, also signed by Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC), was sent to the Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology at VA, Roger Baker, regarding implementation of a new patient scheduling system. In a recent report, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) characterized the Department’s twenty-five year old patient scheduling system as a major limitation on VA’s ability to reduce wait times and as not user friendly. Senator Murray urged VA to take steps to ensure its current system is no longer a barrier to veterans seeking timely access to mental health care and to expedite the planned replacement of this system.
In a second letter, sent to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Senator Murray requested quarterly reports on VA’s progress as they implement staffing increases for mental health services. As VA begins work to hire 1,600 new mental health staff, in addition to another 1,500 existing vacancies, these quarterly reports will provide the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee with insight into the Department’s progress as it fills these critical positions.
“A new patient scheduling system must be a top priority for VA. With the current system, VA schedulers have trouble telling a provider’s availability and they can’t track demand for services. This is why I hear time and again from veterans trying to get appointments for mental health care only to be told they’ll have to wait a month or more. That isn’t right and we’ve got to do better,” said Senator Murray. “VA has also promised to hire 1,600 new mental health providers, yet there are already 1,500 existing vacancies. If we’re going to provide high quality and timely mental health care, we must see real results from VA and not allow this promise of more providers to become 3,100 empty offices. As we continue to address other problems with mental health care for our veterans, I will be watching closely to make sure VA is doing everything in its power to bring these providers on board.”
These letters come on the heels of a report Senator Murray had requested from the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General on the time it takes VA to complete mental health care appointments for our nation’s veterans. The report concludes, as Senator Murray has repeatedly warned, that the wait times for mental health care faced by veterans, many of whom are in crisis and need urgent care, far exceed acceptable wait times and are significantly greater than VA has previously reported.
The full text of both letters follow:
May 22, 2012
The Honorable Roger W. Baker
Assistant Secretary for Information and Technology
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Baker:
For the past two years, the Committee has conducted oversight of veterans’ access to mental health care at VA and the quality of that care. We have heard repeatedly from veterans in crisis who looked to VA for help only to find their appointments postponed and care delayed. During the Committee’s most recent hearing on mental health care, we examined the serious issues affecting the Department’s ability to schedule appointments in a timely way and to accurately calculate veterans’ wait times.
The hearing highlighted what we have long known – scheduling and the Department’s twenty-five year old scheduling system remain at the heart of VA’s inability to provide timely access to medical care. In its report, Veterans Health Administration: Review of Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care, and at the hearing, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) characterized the Department’s twenty-five year old patient scheduling system as a major limitation on VA’s ability to reduce wait times and as not user friendly.
We know that this outdated system prevents the Department from accurately tracking the key performance metrics that are necessary to correctly evaluate wait times and access. VA cannot readily track demand or capacity, and assessing provider availability through the system is challenging. Inconsistent practices by schedulers to capture appointment information have also affected VA’s ability to provide timely access to care. Indeed, the Department has known about these issues as early as 2005. That year, and again in 2007, the OIG released reports identifying these issues, yet nearly seven years later, scheduling remains a barrier to timely and quality mental health care at VA.
It is clear to us that much more must be done by VA to reduce wait times and improve access to mental health care. Replacing the patient scheduling system must be a top priority for the Department. While we know that VA is working on a replacement scheduling system, we understand it will not be implemented until 2014 at the earliest. As our servicemembers continue to return home from Afghanistan and the need for a reliable scheduling system grows, this timeline may simply be too little too late. If the Department cannot expedite implementation of its scheduling replacement system, what steps will VA take in the meantime to ensure its current system is no longer a barrier to veterans seeking timely access to mental health care?
In order to expedite implementation, funding of the new system must also be a priority. Yet we understand that the Fiscal Year 2013 funding for this project through your office’s prioritized operating plan is not yet confirmed. This is a critical project. Full funding must be a priority.
While these are complicated issues, and identifying a viable commercial scheduling system capable of successfully integrating with VA legacy systems requires careful and thoughtful planning, those who depend on VA for timely and quality mental health care look to us for answers and solutions. We look forward to hearing from you about your plan to expedite implementation of VA’s new scheduling system and the steps you will take in the interim to ensure the current scheduling system is part of the solution and not part of the problem. Thank you for all of your work on behalf of our nation’s veterans.
May 22, 2012
The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
Thank you for your plan to increase the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) mental health services by adding 1,900 new staffing positions. The announcement of additional positions is a well-intended step toward meeting the increasing demand in mental health services at VA.
I write to request quarterly updates, beginning at the end of the third quarter of this fiscal year, on the Department’s progress as VA implements the staffing increase for mental health services. As VA begins hiring nearly 3,400 mental health staff, these quarterly updates will provide the Committee with insight into the Department’s progress in filling critical vacancies.
I also request that the Department provide information on the use of additional pay authorities to recruit mental health professionals over the last four years, as well as any advertising or recruitment efforts to address the staffing shortage. I expect the first report to the Committee no later than three months since the announcement of new mental health positions.
As you know, VA’s mental health services have the unique ability to firmly place veterans on the successful path toward achieving their full potential, which not only save lives but also enrich the lives of our veterans, their families, and their communities. I thank you for your commitment to our nation’s veterans and look forward to continuing to work with you on this important mission.