Thursday, August 30, 2012

VA Phone Calls Won’t Solve Massive Problems

Despite the presumably sincere efforts of the Obama Administration and good intentions of at least some leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the waiting time for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking their disability benefits from VA is getting longer, according to a report released this week from the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting

Despite the shame of VA's ongoing disability backlog, the department distributed another self-congratulatory press release this week announcing that a brief therapeutic phone conversation they’ve dubbed “motivational interviewing” is more effective than a simple “check-in” call in convincing veterans with mental health diagnoses to begin getting treatment.

The results produced by this telephone interviewing technique were revealed as part of a study led by Dr. Karen Seal, a psychiatrist and director of the Integrated Care Clinic at the San Francisco VA Medical Center

“We’ve gone to great lengths to provide these veterans with state-of-the-art mental health treatment,” Seal said in a statement this week. “The irony is that they are not necessarily engaging in this treatment. Our study was designed to try to connect our veterans with the treatments that are available to them. A simple telephone conversation, if done correctly, seems to go a long way in getting these veterans into treatment.”

That all sounds nice, but this study reached out to just 73 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who screened positive for one or more mental health issues but were not currently in treatment. Not exactly a substantial sampling of the massive numbers of veterans who’ve not been treated. 

The real irony here is that even if some of these veterans have agreed to be treated, the problems at VA are getting worse. The waiting lists are getting horrifically long.

VA’s own data shows that the number of veterans still waiting for a decision on their disability claims has grown to more than 900,000 as of the beginning of this August. And of those, 832,000 are waiting for disability or survivor benefits, while many others await word on their pensions of GI Bill educational benefits.

There is no way VA has the resources to contact the literally millions of veterans of wars dating back to Korea who've not been screened for mental health issues.

Seal said, “We’re planning a follow-up study involving veterans at VA outpatient clinics in rural communities. I think we might be on to something really good here.”

Perhaps. But it seems unlikely this effort will have a significant impact. VA has not detailed how such a program would be implemented nationwide, or how many of these veterans at these rural clinics will be contacted. 

Will VA hire people who simply make phone calls all day? VA is understaffed as it is. If these kinds of phone calls get more veterans to seek treatment, that’s obviously a good thing. But many of these vets are in for a rude awakening when they seek this treatment. This is a strange case of the VA urging more people to come in… and then wait! 

VA is in a crisis right now, with nearly a million veterans waiting for their disability claims to be processed. This study seems to me like just another case of PR over substance.


  1. Jamie, thank you so much for shining some light on this major problem. As the mother of a deployed soldier this really scares me. We do not know what the future may hold and these men and women have stepped up and served this country. At the very least our country owes them the peace of mind that if they need the help, it WILL be there.

    Christine Dwyer

    1. Thanks Christine. You keep reading, and I promise I'll keep reporting about our veterans.

  2. Wow Jamie, what an insightful piece! Thank you for shedding light on this subject, which does not receive enough coverage. I love it that your written word can speak more candidly for you in this blog!!!

  3. Thank you very much, Megan!! Spread the word, this blog is going to make some noise!