SANTA FE, N.M. — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says it’s making progress in rebuilding trust with veterans, streamlining some services, cutting the backlog of claims and providing more choice to veterans seeking services at non-VA facilities.
And the system is still trying to curb veteran suicides and fill shortages of mental health professionals.
That’s the assessment from interim Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Scott Blackburn, who was in Albuquerque on Friday to tour the Raymond J. Murphy VA Medical Center and meet with veterans, hospital administrators and employees.
Blackburn, an Army veteran, noted that nationwide 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Of them, statistically speaking, 14 “are completely outside the VA system;” of the remaining six who are getting care within the VA system, only three are seen by a mental health provider.
A large part of the problem is that there is a nationwide shortage of mental health care professionals, particularly psychiatrists.
A veterans’ “Choice” program now allows veterans the option of seeking medical services outside of the VA, but which are paid for by the department. The program has been successful in getting veterans quicker access to some services; however, Blackburn noted, many vets still prefer to keep their doctors and stay within the VA system.
In 2015 the VA began asking if veterans trusted its system. That year, only 47 percent of respondents said yes. “Today, we’re at 61 percent, which is better, and we’re proud of the progress, but on the flip side it means that 39 percent of vets still do not trust the VA, and that is not acceptable,” Blackburn said.
The VA has also made progress in cutting the backlog of claims, he said, which at its peak a few years ago was more than 600,000. Today, it is less than 100,000. “The average now is about 125 days to process a claim, and we’re looking to see what it would take to get it down to 30 days or less,” he said.
VA streamlining of audiology and optometry services has drastically cut into a bottleneck that occurred by forcing veterans to first get a referral from their primary care physicians. By eliminating that requirement, veterans can access vision and hearing services faster, and it has reduced primary care appointments by “tens of thousands” each month, he said.
Sonja Brown, acting associate director of the VA medical center in Albuquerque, said New Mexico is experiencing a shortage of about 130 psychiatrists and about 100 primary care providers. That has impacted the Albuquerque VA medical center, making the “Choice” program attractive to many. Still, wait times for appointments show most veterans are able to see a doctor within 30 days.
Since Jan. 1, veterans have made 51,113 appointments. Of those, more than 91 percent were scheduled for 30 days or less, according to the medical center. That is comparable with other VA facilities throughout New Mexico and in Durango, Colo.