A survey of hundreds of West Texas veterans has found that on average they wait more than two months to see a Veterans Affairs mental health professional and even longer to see a physician.
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke on Wednesday released the findings of a study commissioned to Mathew McElroy, a local official with 15 years in social science research. More than 690 veterans living in El Paso County were surveyed by phone and email.
"People say they died of their own hand. No they didn't! They died because they could not get the health care necessary. It..s shameful and it needs to stop," said Lillian "Bonnie" D'Amico, the mother of a veteran who killed himself last September. She said her son saw a mental health professional three times in three years, one of those visits over the telephone.
Respondents say they waited on average 85 days to see a physician at the VA medical facility in El Paso. The wait to meet with a mental health evaluator was 70 days.
About a third of veterans were unsuccessful in scheduling an appointment.
The wait by veterans appears to contradict assertions by the El Paso VA center that at least 85 percent of vets are given an appointment within two weeks.
Melinda Russel, a retired Army Chaplain, said she was able to have an appointment with a psychiatrist three times in a two year period. When she obtained her medical records, they showed that someone had scheduled appointments for her but then canceled them and made it look as if it had been her who requested the cancellation. On one time, the record showed her as a no-show to one of the appointments she did not know she had. That way, she believes, the VA could say they were meeting their two week wait period goals and blame it on the veterans that they were not getting health care.
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"What Melinda just said might begin to explain the discrepancy." O'Rourke said. He added he is not prepared to say if the discrepancies between what the survey's numbers show and what the local VA reported to him are due to wrongdoing.
O'Rourke said he is introducing a bill in Congress to conduct similar surveys nationwide to learn what the veterans say about the availability and quality of care in their areas. The price of such a survey --it cost $7,000 to do in El Paso-- would be covered by freezing the senior VA leadership's bonuses, he added.
He said he is having a phone conference Thursday with Robert L. Jesse, Deputy Under Secretary for Health in the Department of the VA and the El Paso director of the VA health care John Mendoza to discuss the findings. "If they reject our findings and stand by their numbers, then right there that's the problem," the congressman said.
He will ask for more doctors to be brought to El Paso to address the shortage and for an investigation into why there are discrepancies in the numbers the VA reports and what he has heard from veterans.
The Study was done in three waves via email and telephone in three waves between April 21 and May 19. It was done by Mathew McElroy who is currently the director of city Development for the city of El Paso and has master degrees in Public Administration and Economics.
O'Rourke started thinking about surveying the local veterans after hearing stories when he knocked on doors during his campaign in 2012. His office did a small survey conducted by his staff at the end of 2013 and decided to expand it this year. The survey was tested on focus groups before conducting it and it has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percent.