With many veterans waiting for care, the VA may change their use of outside doctors: NPR

With many veterans waiting for care, the VA may change their use of outside doctors: NPR

Veterans, like the rest of the country, are seeing long waits for mental health and other specialized treatments. Veterans Affairs has announced that it will reorganize the planning and payment of private care.


The suicide rate among America’s veterans is almost twice that of civilians. And there is a shortage of psychosocial providers in many parts of the country. As MediaFrolic’s Quil Lawrence reports, it means many veterans have to wait a long time for the care they need.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: For the past several years the VA and the military have tried to break down the stigma of asking for mental health help. But many troops still say such things.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We all know that something like this would ruin my career. He says things like that.

LAWRENCE: This National Guard lieutenant is talking about your husband, who is also still in the active reserve. Fear of job repercussions is why we don’t use their names. She has worked with many troops on PTSD and suicide issues.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We’re trying to really reduce that stigma. Personally, as the commander, I am very, very open about the help I have received, and I strongly encourage my soldiers to seek help.

LAWRENCE: Your husband has been fighting for almost 10 years since he was wounded in a fatal attack in southern Afghanistan. He has a survivor’s fault. At least once he was close to suicide. But last month when he reached out to the VA for an initial psychiatric evaluation, the earliest appointment was next March.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And so it’s kind of amazing to me that, you know, now that you look at a system that is supposed to be so helpful, you are six months behind on an initial admission for someone who has documented suicidal problems.

LAWRENCE: He’s just managing. What they want is treatment to prevent a crisis. VA expanded telemedicine a lot during the pandemic, but that’s not for everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I also know that my husband is the type of person who wants to sit down and actually get in touch with someone.

LAWRENCE: If the waiting time is too long or the provider is too far away, the VA can refer patients to a local private health care provider.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But they – the shorter waiting times with these civilian providers are still 8 to 12 weeks.

LAWRENCE: In the Rocky Mountain region you live in, the private sector is just as stressed as the VA.

DON KOENIG: That varies a lot depending on the market.

LAWRENCE: Don Koenig is a special advisor to VA on Integrated Care.

KOENIG: There are some communities that have a lot of mental health appointments available, maybe New York City, and maybe it’s the other way around in a more rural area to the west.

LAWRENCE: Under the Trump administration, VA improved access to private care. This month the Biden administration announced a reorganization of the use of external doctors by the VA. There are no real details yet, but it is already sparking partisan warfare in Congress. But public or private, that can miss the point. Kevin Griffith of Vanderbilt University co-authored a study of How Long Veterans Wait for Care.

KEVIN GRIFFITH: Overall, the VA tends to have shorter waiting times for psychiatric care. Though – again there are some areas where veterans outside of the VA could be spotted faster. But it – you know, we’ve seen that in general it wasn’t. So if you’ve had a long wait with the VA, you probably have a long wait for private providers too.

LAWRENCE: VA has had vacancies in special professions for years. It is competing with the private sector to hire mental health service providers, which is no comfort to veterans like the Lieutenant, whose husband won’t be seen until March, despite everyone telling him to make his mental health a priority.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right now he’s saying, well, yeah, it’s not a priority for them. If they can wait five months to see me, six months to see me. So it shouldn’t be a priority for me either.

LAWRENCE: She’s about to be deployed and he will look after her children. You have decided to keep the appointment for March instead of a private care appointment. They think that for issues like the guilt of combat survivors, sessions with a VA doctor might be better.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But once he starts doing it I don’t think it will do anything other than make this easier for us as a family for the next year, but easier for him as a human being which is the main priority.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, MediaFrolic News.

SHAPIRO: If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And if you’re a veteran, hit one.


Copyright © 2021 MediaFrolic. All rights reserved. For more information, see the Terms of Use and Permissions pages on our website at www.npr.org.

MediaFrolic transcripts are created by Verb8tm, Inc., an MediaFrolic contractor, on a deadline basis and created using a proprietary transcription process developed with MediaFrolic. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of MediaFrolic programming is the audio recording.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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