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Posted on Sun, Feb. 11, 2007

         Combat stress takes its toll, but VA's response falls short

Soldiers are coming home to a veterans' health system ill-equipped to treat the mental anguish of war.

FORRESTON, Ill. - A year ago on Thanksgiving morning, in the corrugated metal pole barn that housed his family's
electrical business, Timothy Bowman put a handgun to his head and pulled the trigger. The bullet only grazed his
forehead. So he put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger again.

He had been home from the Iraq War for only eight months.

Once a fun-loving, life-of-the-party type, Bowman had slipped into an abyss, tormented by things he had been ordered
to do in war while patrolling in Iraq with the Illinois Army National Guard.

''I'm OK. I can deal with it,'' he would say whenever his father, Mike, urged him to get counseling.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing a wave of returning soldiers like Bowman who are struggling with
memories of a war where it's hard to distinguish innocent civilians from enemy fighters and where the threat of suicide
attacks and roadside bombs haunts the most routine mission. Since 2001, 1.4 million Americans have served in Iraq,
Afghanistan or other locations in the global war on terrorism.

The VA counts post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as the most prevalent mental health malady -- and one of the
top illnesses overall -- to emerge from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

VA Secretary James Nicholson and other top administration officials have said that the agency is well-equipped to
handle any onslaught of veterans with mental health issues and that it plans to continue to beef up mental healthcare
and access, funded under the administration's proposed budget released last week.

But an investigation by McClatchy Newspapers has found that even by its own measures, the VA isn't prepared to give
these returning soldiers the care that could best help them overcome destructive, and sometimes fatal, mental health

McClatchy relied on the VA's own reports, as well as an analysis of VA data released under the federal Freedom of
Information Act. McClatchy analyzed 200 million records, including every medical appointment in the system in 2005,
accessed VA documents and spoke with mental health experts, veterans and their families from around the country.

Among the findings:

• Despite a decadelong effort to treat veterans at all VA locations, nearly 100 local VA clinics provided virtually no
mental healthcare in 2005. Beyond that, the intensity of treatment has diminished. Today, the average veteran with
psychiatric troubles gets almost one-third fewer visits with specialists than he would have received a decade ago.

• Mental healthcare is wildly inconsistent from state to state. In some places, veterans get individual psychotherapy
sessions. In others, they meet mostly for group therapy. Some veterans are cared for by psychiatrists; others see
social workers.

And in some of its medical centers, the VA spends as much as $2,000 for outpatient psychiatric treatment for each
veteran; in others, the outlay is only $500.

• The lack of adequate psychiatric care strikes hard in the western and rural states that have supplied a
disproportionate share of the soldiers in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- often because of their large contingents of
National Guard and Army Reserves. More often than not, mental health services in those states rank near the bottom
in a key VA measure of access. Montana, for example, ranks fourth in sending troops to war, but last in the percentage
of VA visits for mental healthcare in 2005.

Moreover, the return of so many veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan is squeezing the VA's ability to treat yesterday's
soldiers from Vietnam, Korea and World War II. And the competition for attention has intensified as the vivid sights of
urban warfare in Iraq trigger PTSD symptoms anew in older veterans.

''We can't do both jobs at once within current resources,'' a committee of VA experts wrote in a 2006 report, saying it
was concerned about the absence of specialized PTSD care in many areas and the decline in the number of PTSD
visits that veterans receive.

''There are VA facilities that were fine in peacetime but are now finding themselves overwhelmed,'' said Steve
Robinson, government relations director of the Washington-based advocacy group Veterans for America. ``So they're
pitting the needs of the veterans of previous wars against the needs of Iraq veterans.''

While the debate in the VA about the level of its psychiatric care is often frank, the public assurances of top officials
are oddly optimistic.

''Mental health is a very high priority of ours,'' VA Secretary Nicholson said last March. ``The VA possesses -- this will
sound boastful, but . . . as we used to say back home, it ain't bragging if it's true -- but we have the best expertise in
post-traumatic stress disorder in the world. . . . So we are ramped upward, and we have a terrific cadre of experts in
that area, and we are adequately funded to deal with it.''

''We feel very well poised to meet the needs,'' said Antonette Zeiss, a VA health official who is helping to oversee the
mental health system, in a November interview with McClatchy Newspapers.


Soldiers coming home today walk into a VA health system that is nothing like it was when veterans returned from World
War II, Korea, Vietnam or even the first Gulf War. The change began more than a decade ago, when the agency
decided to shift its focus from high-cost inpatient hospital care to outpatient clinics that could tend to veterans' primary-
care needs.

In addition, the VA scrapped its organizational structure and created about 20 networks, more than 150 hospitals and
-- as of today -- more than 800 outpatient clinics. The new system would provide ''easier access to care and greater
consistency in the quality of care,'' the VA said in a 1995 report.

Its committee of experts, however, said that specialized mental health services were declining and that the VA's use of
unadjusted dollars in an era of high inflation in medical costs rendered its annual reports ``meaningless.''

At the same time, the VA began to treat many more people for mental health ailments, so the amount spent has
plummeted from $3,560 per veteran in 1995 to $2,581 per veteran in 2004 -- even before correcting for inflation.
(Overall, mental health spending during that period rose from $2.01 billion to $2.19 billion.)

In the past two years, the VA has committed more money to mental healthcare and brought services to previously
underserved areas. But it has also changed its accounting system, so it's difficult to compare spending after 2005 with
that of prior years.

What does all of this mean for veterans?

It means that veterans have fewer visits with mental health professionals, on average, than they did before. Between
1995 and the first half of fiscal 2006, for example, general psychiatry visits for those in the mental health system
dropped, according to VA data.

VA experts said the system already was straining to provide veterans with what they needed before the United States
attacked Afghanistan in October 2001.

''Even before the war in Afghanistan,'' Matthew Friedman, a top VA mental health official, told Congress in 2004, ``VA
PTSD treatment capacity had been overtaxed.''

The VA outpatient clinic nearest to Tim Bowman's hometown is part of the Madison, Wis., network. Like a third of all
the VA medical centers in 2005, Madison didn't have a specialized PTSD clinical team, according to VA records.

That's the case despite two decades of urging by VA experts that each medical center should have such a team.
''Such specialization has long been recognized as an essential feature in treatment of military-related PTSD,'' a 2006
VA report said. ``Treatment of PTSD requires specific familiarity with the kinds of trauma veterans encountered while in
military service.''


Its absence in many centers exemplifies a significant -- and growing -- problem in the VA: the wide disparities in mental
health services.

The VA's mental health experts started to push for specialized PTSD programs in all medical centers in the 1980s. Top
VA officials agreed ''in concept'' that it would be a good idea.

But in 2005 and 2006, despite telling Congress that it was setting aside an additional $300 million for expanding
mental health services, such as PTSD programs, the VA didn't get around to spending $54 million of that, according to
the Government Accountability Office.

At medical centers with no specialized PTSD teams, veterans still get PTSD treatment, but not from the specialists
whom the VA considers to be most essential.

In all, only 27 percent of veterans receiving PTSD care received it in one of the VA's specialized programs, VA data
show. And that varies widely. In the region that includes Wisconsin, 13 percent of veterans with PTSD received care
from specialized teams. In Ohio, 45 percent did.

The uneven mental health treatment of veterans across the country can be traced to the VA's health system
reorganization, which gave a lot of leeway to local managers.

McClatchy reviewed two dozen mental health measures, based in part on an analysis of every inpatient and outpatient
visit in the VA health system. The 200 million records were contained in two fiscal 2005 databases.

Among the findings:

• Some veterans get in for visits far more than others. The average number of visits per veteran with PTSD ranged
from 22 in the Hudson Valley, N.Y., medical center and clinics to a low of 3.1 in Fargo, N.D. The national average was

• Some VA medical centers spend far more on mental healthcare than others. In Connecticut, it was an average of
$2,317 for each veteran's outpatient psychiatric care. In Saginaw, Mich., it was $468.

• Some veterans get in quickly. Others wait. At the Loma Linda, Calif., VA network, only 39 percent of new mental
health patients were able to get appointments within 30 days, the VA's standard. In other networks, 90 percent or more

• Once they are in the door, some veterans get visits of 75 to 80 minutes, while others get 20- to 30-minute
appointments, the shortest psychotherapy appointments listed in the system. Of all the individual sessions for veterans
with PTSD, those in the Amarillo, Texas, network got the shortest possible visits 87 percent of the time, while those in
Butler, Pa., were given those short visits 6 percent of the time.

Asked about the disparities, the VA's Zeiss said: ``It's true there are disparities. . . . Disparity is a part of healthcare. . .
. I can tell you that the data you're looking at we're looking at, too, and we're using it to make decisions about how to
close the gap and ensure a standard of care nationally.''

The VA's top mental health services official, Dr. Ira Katz, added in a separate interview that variation in a host of
mental health measures wasn't necessarily good or bad. It could reflect different strategies being tried in different
states so that ''our system can better learn what works and what doesn't work,'' he said.

Through such trial and error, variations likely would decrease over time, as, for example, expensive medical centers
become more efficient and underserved medical centers are given more resources, he said.


So far, that hasn't happened, McClatchy found.

For starters, the variations in many mental health measures are growing, not shrinking, according to a McClatchy
analysis of key measures back to the time of the reorganization. A 2005 study by two VA mental health experts came
to the same conclusion, noting that ``system reforms did not lead to decreases in regional variation.''

In addition, the variation in mental health spending is far wider than it is in primary and hospital spending, indicating
that the system is having more trouble ensuring consistency in mental healthcare.

As for the wide variation in spending per veteran on mental healthcare, Katz said it could be explained by the presence
of special programs in various medical centers. There's a national PTSD research center at the Connecticut VA, for
example, that inflates spending figures there.

When asked how many of 128 medical centers ranked by that measure had special programs that might distort
spending figures, Katz said he didn't know if it was a half dozen or if it was 50.

He added that ``the VA is involved in a very active process of identifying and filling gaps in care.''

Among other things, the VA has begun to pump more money into local clinics to ensure that they begin to provide
mental health treatment. ''We have invested more personnel and more money in this in 2006, and are investing still
more in 2007,'' Katz said. The 2008 budget released last week will continue those efforts, the VA said.
Posted on Sun, Feb. 11, 2007

                           POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that can occur after a person lives through a traumatic event,
such as military combat.

Not every combat veteran will get PTSD. But those who do can become easily startled and irritable. They often feel
that they are on guard. They may constantly relive a life-threatening event through flashbacks or nightmares, which
often trigger intense feelings of fear, helplessness and horror. Others may isolate themselves or try to numb their
memory with drugs or alcohol.

PTSD sufferers are more likely to experience unemployment, divorce or separation, and spousal abuse than people
without PTSD.

SOURCE: Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for PTSD
link to the next
page of News
                             Coming home troubled, untreated

It was painful to read the Sunday story on veterans' mental-health problems by Chris Adams of McClatchy's
Washington Bureau. Painful because some of our soldiers are coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq only to fall
victim to post-traumatic stress disorder, and it turns out that the Veterans Administration is not adequately equipped to
treat all of them.

The meticulously researched article identified a Veterans Administration PTSD treatment system that varies widely
from one end of the country to the other, even from state to state. The VA today has about 20 networks nationwide
with more than 150 hospitals and 800-plus outpatient clinics. Each network has some autonomy to set its own care

Expanding facilities

VA facilities in Western states generally provide a lower standard of PTSD treatment than other regions, however,
even though that region has more reserve and National Guard troops serving in Iran and Afghanistan. In some cases
this adds up to longer wait times before veterans get help, and then fewer and shorter sessions with mental-health

The VA needs, first of all, to set a national standard for mental healthcare. As for its acknowledgment of the potential
prevalence of PTSD, the VA gets good marks. It has committed more dollars to mental healthcare in the past two years
and expanded these services where they previously didn't exist. But the VA also still is treating veterans with PTSD
from wars going back to World War II. As more soldiers come home from the Mideast with mental-health problems, the
VA's budget has been stretched so thin that it creates unwelcome competition for mental-health resources between
vets of different eras.

Increase funding

James Nicholson, VA secretary, says that the agency is adequately funded to treat all veterans with mental-health
problems. But after examining 200 million records that included every medical appointment in 2005, reporter Adams
found that, for example, the average number of visits per veteran with PTSD ranged from 22 in the Hudson Valley,
N.Y., medical center and clinics to a low of 3.1 in Fargo, N.D. Also, Connecticut VA centers spend an average of
$2,317 for each veteran's outpatient PTSD care while in Saginaw, Mich., spending was a mere $468 per veteran. At
the Loma Linda, Calif., VA network, only 38 percent of new mental-health patients got appointments within 30 days, the
VA's standard. In other networks, the norm is 90 percent.

Such discrepancies should be addressed by setting across-the-board treatment standards and increasing vets'
mental-healthcare funding as needed. It is the least that our country can do for its soldiers.

           VA Vet Centers Coming to 23 More Communities

February 7, 2007

Nicholson: Vital Services More Accessible for Returning Veterans

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) vet center program, which provides readjustment
counseling and outreach services to combat veterans, is expanding into 23 new communities across the nation in the
next two years, the Department announced today.  These facilities are an important resource for veterans returning
from the Global War on Terror and their families.

“Our vet centers lead the world in helping combat veterans successfully readjust to life at home,” said Secretary of
Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson.  “It’s an important service which combat veterans have earned.  VA continues to
expand into more communities with our vet centers to bring our services closer to the veterans who need them.”

New vet centers will be located in Montgomery, Ala.; Fayetteville, Ark.; Modesto, Calif.; Grand Junction, Colo.; Orlando,
Fort Myers, and Gainesville, Fla.; Macon, Ga.; Manhattan, Kan.; Baton Rouge, La.; Cape Cod, Mass.; Saginaw and
Iron Mountain, Mich.; Berlin, N.H.; Las Cruces, N.M.; Binghamton, Middletown, Nassau County and Watertown, N.Y.;
Toledo, Ohio; Du Bois, Penn.; Killeen, Texas; and Everett, Wash.  

During 2007, VA plans to open new facilities in Grand Junction, Orlando, Cape Cod, Iron Mountain, Berlin and
Watertown.  The other new vet centers are scheduled to open in 2008.

All vet centers are community-based.  They provide counseling on mental health and employment,  plus services on
family issues, education, bereavement and outreach, to combat veterans and their families.  They are staffed by small
teams of counselors, outreach specialists and other specialists, many of whom are combat veterans themselves.

The vet center program was established by Congress in 1979 in recognition that a significant number of Vietnam
veterans were still experiencing readjustment problems.  Today, all veterans who served in combat are eligible for care
at a VA vet center at no cost, as are their families for military-related issues.  Also eligible are veterans who were
sexually assaulted or harassed while on active duty and the families of service members who die on active duty.

Currently, VA maintains 209 vet centers in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S.
Virgin Islands.
Link to full story!