In Our View: Murray Still on the Prowl

Veterans Affairs kept under microscopeby senator from Washington

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Any top-ranking officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs who hope Patty Murray will cheer up and calm down are wasting their time. She’s been up in their grill for much of the 19 years and four months that she’s served in the U.S. Senate. And she’s not going away for at least another four years and eight months, after being re-elected in 2010.Might as well pay attention to what Murray has to say and follow her orders.

The Democratic senator from Washington last week was once again reprimanding Veterans Affairs officials while they were doing a pretty good job of embarrassing themselves. At yet another hearing of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee -- which Murray chairs -- haunting suspicions about military veterans’ difficult access to mental health care were confirmed. Last week’s report showed that wait times far exceed what the VA previously reported and the wait times that the VA mandates. Murray correctly called the news “deeply disturbing.”

Then she went into detail. “Getting our veterans timely mental health care can, quite frankly, often be the difference between life and death. It’s the critical period, not unlike the ‘golden hour’ immediately after a traumatic physical injury. Yet, this report clearly shows that the VA is failing to meet their own mandates for timeliness.”

Murray’s relentless attack on VA officials included a reference to the inner difficulty soldiers face in deciding to request mental health care, “those who have been brave enough to seek care. … Once a veteran takes the step to reach out for help, we need to knock down every potential barrier to care.”

Speaking for the VA, Deputy Undersecretary William Schoenhard said hospital tactics that cause delays in access to mental health care are “totally unacceptable.” He also said the VA will add 1,600 mental health workers and 300 support staff in the next five to nine months. VA staffing is up 45 percent since 2005, but caseloads have increased almost as much.

The VA’s policy is for veterans to receive a mental health treatment appointment within two weeks of their desired date. But at Wednesday’s hearing came troubling comments about how some hospitals are “gaming the system.” Nicholas Tolentino, former mental health administrative officer at the VA medical center in Manchester, N.H., said the hospital met its goal by simply eliminating the chance for patients to state a desired appointment. Instead, they were told when the next appointment was available, then that appointment (often weeks or months away), was entered into the VA records as the desired date.

For the VA to increase the number of mental health workers is encouraging. But the department’s track record is abysmal. Continued close monitoring is warranted. That’s why veterans should be thankful that Murray will continue her work as an indefatigable watchdog.

It didn’t take her long after Wednesday’s hearing in Washington, D.C. to demonstrate her doggedness. Thursday in Tacoma, she held a field hearing on the needs faced by veterans in Washington state, particularly in the South Sound region. Officials explored the challenges that the military, veterans, businesses and nonprofit groups can confront together. Mental health care occupied much of their attention, along with employment opportunities and community outreach for returning veterans.

Americans know full well that military veterans have done their duty. We also know that Murray is obsessed with doing her duty as a VA overseer. All that’s left now is for the VA to do its duty.