Addiction is a disease. Like with a heart attack or stroke, care cannot be delayed when a patient needs it most.
But that’s what is happening at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
According to Military Times, veterans are waiting weeks or even months to receive substance abuse treatment. The VA also is ignoring a federal law and it’s own policy that says when the VA itself cannot provide timely care for alcohol and drug dependency, it must offer veterans access to other providers, including non-government community care providers.
Waiting weeks for treatment
A recent example came from an investigation into residential treatment programs in Texas.
After receiving complaints from veterans in north Texas, the VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigated how long veterans in that region were forced to wait for help with their drug or alcohol dependency.
The OIG’s results are alarming.
The OIG found that staff at the VA North Texas office placed patients on waitlists for two to three months and “failed to offer community residential care referrals during most of fiscal years 2020 and 2021.”
What’s more, the OIG report stated VA staff “misinterpreted” community care guidance and “provided patients with misinformation and inappropriately denied requests for community residential care.”
Delaying care makes it more difficult for individuals suffering from substance use disorders to overcome their dependencies.
A report from the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General concludes, “Research shows that the most effective way to help someone with a substance use problem who may be at risk for developing a substance use disorder is to intervene early, before the condition can progress.”
The VA delays and misinformation about community care could potentially affect thousands of people. 550,000 veterans, or 8.5% of the total population served by the VA, are dealing with alcohol and drug abuse issues.
Wounded Warrior Project Chief Program Officer Jen Silva told Military Times, “Many veterans are trying to access care, but instead [are] receiving delays…Not finding appropriate care in a timely manner not only fails to capitalize on veterans’ desire to change their life circumstances, but in some cases causes further damage to their mental and physical health.”
VA ignores community care mandate
VA policy states VA must provide veterans with “alternative” substance abuse treatment if they cannot find an inpatient bed within 30 days for this specific type of care. These options can include VA programs in different cities or states, or referral into community care.
The VA OIG found those rules are often applied inconsistently, leaving veterans to wait weeks or months in line for care at their local VA facility. Veterans in north Texas even have alleged that officials at their local VA office actively denied their request for community care.
Lawmakers on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said that they are hearing an increasing number of complaints from veterans forced to wait for care in the VA system instead of being given options for community care facilities.
Organizations that advocate for veterans also are getting “numerous calls from frustrated individuals who don’t understand what options are available to them, leading to waits of weeks or months for help,” Military Times reported.
Concerned Veterans for America Foundation has sought to better inform veterans of the community care options by recreating the VA MISSION Act website, a website the VA took down from its own website in 2021.
Federal lawmakers are now considering whether to write legislation that would mandate more outside care referrals if VA administrators cannot find ways to streamline the current process. Current legislation already being considered by Congress, namely the Veterans’ HEALTH Act in the the Senate and Veteran Care Improvement Act in the House, would require better outreach by VA on community care options.
Some veterans advocates want lawmakers to go further. They want Congress to get rid of the current 30-day requirement, cutting it to a week or less.
VA reforms not working
Despite Congress passing reforms that expand veterans’ access to more timely care, the VA has stood in the way of community care as an option, determined to keep veterans in the VA system, despite what it means for their physical or mental health.
The VA has a responsibility to ensure veterans get the care they need when they need it, whether that is at the VA or not. As the country’s substance use, alcohol use, and mental health crisis continue to fester, access to quality, timely care is all the more important.
Learn more about the options veterans have to seek care in the community.