Lawmakers talked Wednesday about the challenges facing the VA in treating mental-health issues, including not enough money, not enough doctors, and not enough time left in the legislative year.
But Valerie Pallotta, testifying to those lawmakers at the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said she faces the challenges that come with suicide in a different way: getting out of bed in the morning, making a meal for herself and her husband, and thinking back to the night two police officers knocked on her door at 3 a.m. saying that her 25-year-old son was dead.
Joshua Pallotta, who served with the Vermont National Guard, killed himself just six weeks ago after a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan where he saw several close friends die in combat.
“We struggle to get through a shower without breaking down,” Ms. Pallotta told the Senate committee. “We just go through the motions.”
As Congress grapples with trying to cure the VA of a bureaucracy that created secret wait lists to deny veterans care without seeming to do so, and that put the department over the interests of patients, senators said Ms. Pallotta’s struggle underscored how urgent some of the problems are.
“There is a benefit to telling these stories because the reminder is that, while we hear this stuff about the bureaucracy at the VA, the consequences are something that we’re not so readily aware of that we’ve heard from you today,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, Kansas Republican. “There can be no excuse.”
The average wait time for a mental-health appointment at the VA is 36 days — unchanged from June 9, despite an influx of money that came when Congress passed the Veterans Choice Act over the summer.
Dr. Harold Kudler, chief consultant for mental health services at the VA, said the wait times don’t account for same-day appointments when a veteran calls with an urgent mental health problem. They are seen immediately — the goal for every veteran with an emergency, he said.
He also said the few months of increased funding and awareness hasn’t been enough to hire enough new staff.
“Getting more people onboard does take time and that’s a slow process,” he said.
To try to avoid these long wait times, lawmakers included a Choice Card in this summer’s reform bill, which will allow veterans who experience long waits or live too far from a facility to seek help in their community. Dr. Kudler, however, said private mental health doctors may not be prepared or qualified to help veterans. Private doctors often don’t even ask if someone served in the military when taking down a medical history, he said.
Dr. Kudler said that even though Congress dedicated $5 billion to hire new providers, it remains to be seen how much would go to mental health staff. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana Democrat, said it’s up to the VA to make sure the money goes there, even if it’s not spelled out in the law.
“The injuries coming out of these wars have a lot to do with unseen problems,” Mr. Tester said. “$5 billion is a lot of dough and you guys should use that to help take care of this mental health problem we have in the VA.”
The VA touted statistics that showed middle-aged veterans who got mental healthcare at the VA had lower rates of suicide. But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, questioned why the youngest veterans, even those who get care at the VA, are committing suicide at such a high rate.
The VA promised to do more outreach, but Mr. Blumenthal said that’s not a solution, since veterans are already aware of the services the VA offers.
“They’re in your door, they use your services and they’re committing suicide at a higher rate,” he said. “People are dying at a higher rate who use your services.”
The VA was unable to provide an exact rate of suicide for this population, but said they were aware of the problem.
“We are trying to understand why they are doing this,” said Caitlin Thompson, the deputy director of suicide prevention at the VA.
Susan Selke, the mother of a Marine who committed suicide, said her son’s unit lost 20 Marines in 2008 while deployed in combat. Since coming home, the unit has lost another 20 to suicide as of earlier this week, she said.
Ms. Selke told reporters ahead of the hearing that VA Secretary Bob McDonald promised his support of the suicide prevention bill named after her son, Clay Hunt.