Military veterans were forced to wait more than two months on average for mental health treatment at the El Paso VA, and more than a third never received it, according to survey results released Wednesday morning.
U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) commissioned the independent survey, which he says contradicts Department of Veterans Affairs' figures, highlights persistent scheduling and staffing problems, and offers a blueprint for VA oversight nationwide.
The results, released in a detailed 70-page report, showed veterans waited an average of 71 days for mental health treatment, and more than 36% never saw a provider.
Before the study, O’Rourke said VA officials had told him that each month during the last year, 85% to 100% of veterans seeking first-time mental health appointments saw a provider within two weeks, a department goal.
But the survey showed that 77% of veterans seeking mental health appointments were not seen within two weeks. About 43% said they had postponed care because of the difficulty in seeing a provider.
Of those requesting non-mental healthcare appointments, about 72% were not seen within two weeks, according to the survey. Their average wait to see a provider was 85 days.
The survey, which queried nearly 700 veterans, has a margin of error of 3.8 percentage points in either direction.
O’Rourke, a freshman Democrat from the border city, which has a large military presence, said the survey matched what he heard from veterans who he met going door to door during his campaign two years ago and after, at local town hall meetings and spot visits to the VA.
"The VA all along was telling us that the VA was doing just fine," O'Rourke told The Times, "We now have the truth and the real facts, which should spur us even harder to make sure we have the necessary providers and accountability to get those veterans seen on time."
"We need to find out why the VA is showing us those numbers but the veterans are seeing something else. This could be the model for assessing performance at veterans health facilities across the country," he said.
A spokeswoman for the El Paso VA Health Care System did not return calls. Neither did the director, John Mendoza, who was provided with a copy of the report late Tuesday, O'Rourke said.
O’Rourke says he is scheduled to meet with Mendoza this week, and that both he and VA officials in Washington have committed to reducing wait times and expanding staffing levels in El Paso.
"I want to hear what he has to say — perhaps there’s a legitimate excuse for this," the congressman said.
He said his office undertook the survey after hearing from veterans and relatives who suffered because of delayed care, including a young veteran who, after struggling to get mental health care, killed himself. O'Rourke plans to hold a briefing Wednesday morning in El Paso with the service member’s mother to announce the survey results.
O’Rourke spent about $7,000 of his congressional allowance on the survey, and worked with a city of El Paso official to design it during the last six weeks. They started with a list of about 19,000 veterans in the district, cross-referenced it with phone numbers and emails and reached 692 veterans.
Now O’Rourke plans to propose legislation that would replicate the survey randomly over a year at 151 VA facilities across the country, at a total cost of about $1 million. He would pay for the surveys by canceling bonuses currently paid to VA staff. The bonuses have been criticized as a motivation for hiding the lengthy VA wait times.
O’Rourke praised the VA inspector general’s recent scathing report, but he noted that it resulted from whistle-blower complaints, not systematic oversight.
"Part of our solution is, why don’t we henceforth ask the veterans how the VA is doing, how quickly are you seen, and how would you rate the resolution of your problem?" O’Rourke said. "Then from that, you — the overseer of the agency — have real data to make better decisions about making new laws to improve the situation. Right now, we’re not working with real numbers."
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