Long waits for mental health care at Alabama VA

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Veterans seeking mental health services at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System still have among the longest waits in the country, according to federal statistics.

New patients seeking mental health care at the systems are waiting an average of 67 days for an appointment, according to Department of Veterans Affairs’ data from Oct. 14. There were only three networks where patients experienced higher average wait times. Patients at the VA systems in Martinsburg, West Virginia; Amarillo, Texas; and Spokane, Washington waited between 76 and 88 days on average.

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Montgomery, who has become one of the sharpest critics of the Alabama system, said she is concerned that the wait times are getting longer, not shorter, according to the federal data. A June audit reported the wait time was 57 days at the Central Alabama system, which was also among the worst in the nation.

“I’m not expecting this to improve magically overnight. I’m a realist. I know it takes time, but we are moving in the wrong direction. That is extremely disappointing and frustrating to see these mental health wait times worsen,” Roby said.

“To picture a soldier coming home from Afghanistan with PTSD and to have to wait two months to get treatment, that’s outrageous. Veterans need, and deserve, much better than that,” Roby said.

The Central Alabama Veterans system issued a statement disputing the most recent data, saying appointments were not entered into the system correctly.

“The goal of the Central Alabama Veterans Affairs Health Care System (CAVHCS) is to provide timely, quality health care to veterans, which they have earned and deserve,” a statement released by the system read.

However, VA officials have not disputed the general issue of problems with wait times. An inspection report released last week also showed the facility ranked among the bottom of VA systems for mental health wait times.

The Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System serves nearly 42,000 veterans through major medical facilities in Montgomery and Tuskegee and outpatient clinics in Monroeville, Fort Rucker and Dothan in Alabama and in Columbus, Georgia.

Central Alabama officials said a new psychiatrist has been selected for the Columbus, Ga. community-based outpatient clinic, a high growth area for CAVHCS. The system will also use Saturday appointments and is establishing a same-day, initial evaluation clinic for new patients referred for mental health services.

Roby said she has been frustrated at the system’s past refusal to not utilize private providers.

Central Alabama officials said that is changing and they are identifying additional mental health providers in the community to help them serve veteran patients.

However, the numbers showed a much shorter wait at the Montgomery campus. New patients waited on average only 23 days in Montgomery, while the waits were 71 days in Tuskegee and 81 days in Columbus.

Deputy Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson said last month that the wait for veterans to get health care is still too long at the Central Alabama system, but that some improvements have been made after a leadership shake-up.

A federal appeals board last month upheld the firing of the system’s director for neglect of duty.

The Central Alabama System is holding a town hall meeting on Dec. 16 at its Tuskegee campus. It is one of several being held across the country.

“Our goal is to gain valuable feedback that will help us improve the care and services we provide to Veterans,” said CAVHCS Interim Director Robin Jackson.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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