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Report: Mental health care delayed for New Mexico veterans

By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYANJuly 25, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Patients who sought mental health services through U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs facilities in New Mexico encountered limited access to care that included cancelled appointments and months-long delays, according to a federal review.

The findings of the agency’s inspector general indicates a combination of staffing shortages, hiring delays, training and inconsistent policies with regard to scheduling resulted in problems at VA facilities in Albuquerque and elsewhere around the state.

New Mexico’s rural nature complicated matters as there are few mental health providers beyond the state’s urban centers.

The report stems from a 2018 inspection that was prompted by an anonymous complaint received the previous year that alleged some patients were waiting as long as 18 months for mental health appointments or therapy and that follow-up was lacking for patients who were started on medications.

Staff with the New Mexico VA network also were accused of using spreadsheets to track clinic patients rather than an electronic database as required by policies that were overhauled following a nationwide scandal in 2014 that centered on secret waiting lists and management concerns.

While investigators did not find any instances in which patients in New Mexico died as a result of not receiving timely care, members of the state’s congressional delegation said Thursday the report shows solutions have been proven elusive for a system that serves more than 150,000 veterans spread across tens of thousands of square miles.

Sen. Tom Udall called it an “intolerable reality,” saying for years too many veterans have experienced delays in care.

“It is beyond clear that the VA must take immediate action to address staffing and provider shortages and recruitment issues that are leading to these unacceptable and longstanding issues,” the Democrat said in a statement.

The earlier scandal over wait times resulted in Congress passing legislation to boost access by giving veterans the option of seeking private-sector care.

Under an expansion of the program that took effect in June, veterans can see doctors outside the VA system if they must wait more than 20 days — or 28 days for specialty care — for an appointment or drive more than 30 minutes to a VA facility.

As part of the review, the inspector general’s staff looked at wait times for new patients as well as returning patients with clinic appointments. They determined VA staff wasn’t routinely referring patients to the private-sector program and that the network’s tele-mental health program needed to be used more.

Paula Aragon, a spokeswoman for the VA in New Mexico, said Thursday the report focused on events that occurred more than a year ago. She said officials are implementing the inspector general’s recommendations and expect to complete the work by January 2020.

The agency in June submitted its comments to the inspector general, saying it already had finished training for those workers who schedule mental health appointments and that the rate of appointment cancellations was now below the national standard.

Aragon said an additional 11 medical support assistants were hired and nearly all critical provider positions have been filled.

Still, monthly data collected by the agency that tracks patients across the system shows New Mexico had among the longest average wait times for mental health appointments at more than three times the national average. Waits can be much longer in Taos, Espanola, Las Vegas, Gallup and Alamogordo.

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