EL PASO — U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke said Wednesday that according to a study commissioned by his office, it takes El Paso veterans seeking mental health care more than two months to see a provider, and as many as a third go without treatment completely.
The data contradicts what O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said he has been told for more than a year by officials with the El Paso Veterans Health Administration. According to them, he said, between 85 and 100 percent of new veterans see a provider within two weeks.
“Draw your own conclusions about what this means for the outcomes for these veterans,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a stretch to connect the high rate of suicide to the delayed, deferral and ultimate denial of access to mental health care providers."
John Mendoza, the director of the El Paso VA Health Care system, said he shared O'Rourke's concerns, but did not mention specifically the findings of the congressman's survey or his agency's own numbers.
"The men and women of the El Paso VA Health Care System are committed to providing the best care possible to the New Mexico and Texas Veterans who we proudly serve," he said. "We share Congressman O’Rourke’s concerns for ensuring timely access to the primary and mental health care that our veterans have earned and deserve. We will not waver in our efforts to improve and we remain dedicated to providing exceptional health care to veterans."
O'Rourke released his survey — which included responses from about 700 veterans and cost about $7,000 — to the media following a national scandal in which dozens of veterans died while waiting for care in Phoenix. Officials there were also compiling secret lists of veterans who were awaiting treatment, according to reports. O’Rourke said he will meet with VA officials in El Paso on Thursday to discuss why the reported wait times they have reported to him are different from the ones in his office's survey.
“We need to find out why we have this discrepancy, were there secret lists maintained, was there fudging of the numbers reported out of the VHA in El Paso," he said. "Is there a reasonable excuse for why the VA here said there were reasonable wait times?”
O’Rourke conceded that his office's data was anecdotal but he stood by the results of the study, which has a margin of error of about 3.8 percent. But he also pointed to two specific examples of El Pasoans whose experiences backed up the findings.
Melinda Russell did a 15-month tour in Iraq that began in 2007. She served as an Army chaplain until shortly after a colleague committed suicide.
“That was extremely difficult for me and it ended up culminating in my medical retirement,” she said, adding that she subsequently joined the Warrior Transition Battalion to treat her post-traumatic stress disorder.
“During that time we lost three other soldiers and a wife of a soldier to suicide. All of that, as well as the horrible situation at the VA, ended up with me being unable to do my job there,” she said.
After seeking her medical records, she said she learned that the VA had marked appointments it canceled as meetings she canceled herself.
“It makes it look as if they are trying to treat us when they are canceling,” she said.” One was [marked] a 'no show' even though they called me and canceled.” That went on for six months, she said.
Lillian “Bonnie” D’Amico and her son Nicholas D’Amico first met O’Rourke in September 2013 at a town hall meeting where they told the congressman about their troubles getting mental health care for Nicholas, a veteran who was also suffering from PTSD. Her son committed suicide by driving off El Paso’s Trans Mountain Road just weeks after that meeting.
D’Amico said after convincing her son to move to El Paso so she could help him with his recovery, he wasn't given an initial appointment for four months. That was later postponed for two more months. What followed was a roller coaster of mood swings and prescribed medications.
“He couldn’t wait any longer,” she said. “… I think this could have been prevented had he had the mental health (care) that he needed.”
According to O'Rourke's survey, about 77 percent of respondents waited more than two weeks to see a medical provider, all veterans had at least one appointment canceled and providers spent an average of 42 minutes with their patients.
O’Rourke said he is considering filing legislation that would require that similar surveys be conducted across the country.
“We know we cannot trust the VA to tell us how the VA is doing. But we can trust veterans to tell us about the kind of care they're receiving,” he said.