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VA Faulted on Mental Health Spending
Government report says the VA failed to spend all money budgeted for mental health services
WASHINGTON, Dec. 4, 2006
By SUZANNE GAMBOA Associated Press Writer
(AP) The Department of Veterans Affairs did not spend all of the extra $300 million it budgeted to increase mental health services and failed to keep track of how some of the money was used, a government report says.
VA launched a plan in 2004 to improve its mental health services for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorders and substance-abuse problems. To fill gaps in services, the department added $100 million for mental health initiatives in 2005 and another $200 million in 2006. That money was to be distributed to its regional networks of hospitals, medical centers and clinics for new services.
But the VA fell short of the spending, by $12 million in 2005 and about $42 million in fiscal 2006, said the Government Accountability Office, Congress investigative arm.
It distributed $35 million in 2005 to its 21 health care networks but didn't inform the networks the money was supposed to be used for mental health initiatives. VA medical centers returned $46 million to headquarters because they couldn't spend the money in fiscal 2006.
In addition, the VA cannot determine to what extent about $112 million was spent on mental health services improvements or new services in 2006.
VA reported in September that more than a third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought medical treatment from the VA in the 18 months prior reported symptoms of stress or other mental disorders.
Longer and multiple deployments, unpredictable daily attacks and roadside bombings and efforts to reduce the stigma of post-traumatic stress disorders have been cited as reasons for the increased reports.
VA said at the time it had increased funding for mental health services, hired 100 more counselors and was not overwhelmed by the rising demand.
VA spokesman Matt Burns said in a written statement the GAO looked at the agency's Mental Health Strategic Plan as an accounting exercise. "In contrast, VA's emphasis has been on building mental health care capacity and high quality programs to support and treat veterans. VA expends resources for programs that meet these criteria," Burns said.
He said VA has already taken steps to make sure mental health money is used for its intended purpose.
The money is only a portion of what VA spends on mental health. VA planned to spend about $2 billion on mental health services in FY2006. But the additional spending from existing funds on what VA dubbed its Mental Health Care Strategic Plan was trumpeted by VA as way to eliminate gaps in mental health services now and services that would be needed in the future.
"While we are at war we do have to make sure we spend the resources that are allocated for our veterans," said Rep. Michael Michaud, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs health subcommittee.
He said he thinks VA is overwhelmed. Along with the increased mental stress reports from Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, Vietnam vets are also experiencing flashbacks and recurrences of combat stress problems because of the ongoing wars, he said.
"This goes above and beyond just dealing with the veterans, it deals with the family of veterans which could have long-term implications and additional costs at federal level and state and local level," Michaud said.
Democrats have said they want to increase funding for veterans' health care, in particular its mental health counseling for returning Iraq and Afghanistan vets when they take over Congress next year. They also have said they want to increase the department's oversight and get detailed budget accounting from the VA.