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October 19, 2006

VA secretary says veterans’ mental health needs being met

By Jim Collar
Post-Crescent staff writer
http://www.postcrescent.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20061019/APC0101/61019122/1979

GRAND CHUTE — The U.S. secretary for veterans affairs Thursday praised the federal government’s response to veterans’ mental health needs despite a new report suggesting a shortfall in the department’s counseling resources.

Secretary R. James Nicholson toured the John H. Bradley VA Outpatient Clinic Thursday morning prior to meeting with State Rep. John Gard, R-Peshtigo, who is running for the 8th Congressional District seat against Appleton Democrat Steve Kagen.

Nicholson’s visit coincided with the Thursday release of a report from Democrats on the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs that found the nation’s VA counseling centers haven’t kept pace with demands for care.

While acknowledging that mental health treatment posed a significant challenge, Nicholson said the VA is adequately funded and staffed to meet needs.

“We’re dealing with it with great excellence,” he said.

The report suggests that the Department of Veterans Affairs is falling behind.

The report focused on 60 of the nation’s 207 VA Readjustment Counseling Centers.

It found that from October 2005 through June 2006, the number of veterans seeking service for post-traumatic stress disorder at those centers jumped from 4,467 to 9,103 veterans.

A survey of those centers found that 40 percent directed veterans in need of individual therapy into group sessions instead.

The report states that 27 percent of centers either limited or plan to limit access to marriage or family therapy.

The report followed a 2005 study released by the Government Accounting Office urging improvement in VA services for those with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mental health needs of those returning from combat have been well documented.

Nicholson said about 25 percent of soldiers who served in Afghanistan and Iraq have needed some level of mental health treatment upon their return.

In response to demands, the department has established programs and placed specialists in post-traumatic stress disorder at each of the VA’s major medical centers.

The department has also made it a priority to diagnose the condition as early as possible, he said.

Nicholson said the department is dedicated to making sure returning veterans have all the care they need.

Mental health care is only one aspect of a department that serves a million patients each week, he said. Among those patients, soldiers returning from combat with care needs are a “very high priority. We are staffed for it,” he said.

Jim Collar can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 216, or at jcollar@postcrescent.com.

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