WASHINGTON – Congressional investigators are questioning whether the Veterans Affairs Department (search) can adequately help troops who may return from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The agency said that so far it has treated 6,400 veterans of the Afghanistan (search) and Iraq wars for the disorder and that overall, its health care system has provided such services for 244,000 veterans.
But the Government Accountability Office (search), in a report Wednesday, said it is not clear whether the VA can meet the demands for treatment from veterans of those two recent wars. Agency data for the 2004 budget year show that fewer than half of those using VA health care are screened for the disorder, according to the investigative arm of Congress.
If veterans returning from combat do not have access to these services, "many mental health experts believe that the chance may be missed ... to lessen the severity of symptoms and improve the overall quality of life" for those with the disorder, the report said.
The VA contended the report did not accurately describe the type of services for post-traumatic stress disorder that the agency has provided over the past 20 years or its ability to provide such services in the future.
"We take exception to this report," said Dr. Jonathan Perlin, VA's acting undersecretary for health. The report says the VA is a "world leader in PTSD treatment," Perlin noted. The report was requested by Illinois Rep. Lane Evans, the House Veterans Committee's ranking Democrat.
Some experts estimate about 15 percent of military personnel serving in Iraq and Afghanistan could develop the mental health condition. Symptoms include intense anxiety, insomnia and difficulty coping with work, family and social relationships. If the disorder is not treated, it can lead to substance abuse, severe depression and suicide.
Investigators said the VA has partially put in place 14 of the two dozen recommendations from an advisory committee that Congress created; the VA says it has completed seven.
The delay "raises questions about VA's capacity to identify and treat veterans returning from military combat who may be at risk" for developing the disorder, and maintaining treatment for veterans already receiving help, according to the report.