On July 24th, 2014, the House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing entitled “Restoring Trust: The View of the Acting Secretary and the Veterans Community.” The members of the committee asked questions of VA officials and leaders in the Veterans community.
The first panel included the Honorable Sloan D. Gibson, Acting Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. He was accompanied by Mr. Danny Pummill, Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits, Veterans Benefit Administration, U.S. Department 0f Veterans Affairs and Mr. Philip Matkovsky, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Health for Administrative Operations, Veterans Health Administration, U.S Department of Veterans Affairs.
The second panel included Ms. Verna Jones, Veterans Affairs Director, The American Legion; Mr. Ryan M. Gallucci Deputy Director, National Legislative Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States; Mr. Carl Blake, Acting Associate Executive Director for Government Relations, Paralyzed Veterans of America; Mr. Joseph A. Violante, National Legislative Director, Disabled American Veterans; Mr. Rick Weidman, Executive Director of Government Affairs, Vietnam Veterans of America; and Mr. Alex Nicholson, Legislative Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) asked the Acting Secretary about the VA’s recruiting tools. He addressed the shortage of providers, especially mental health providers, and wanted to know how the VA planned to recruit health care providers. He proposed increasing the amount of the VA’s budget allocated to graduate medical education, which has been frozen since 1996, because people are likely to practice where they receive their graduate education.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) asked about the Acting Secretary’s intentions to increase capacity and improve the access to care in undeserved, poor performing facilities. El Paso has been ranked last in access to mental health care for enrolled veterans and fourth to last for new veterans’ access to mental health. Acting Secretary Gibson replied, “I absolutely will.” Rep. O’Rourke also explained that he has been making calls to recruit psychiatrists to the area and has run into problems incentivizing them to choose El Paso, because they would be categorized and paid as a GS-13 instead of a GS-14, since El Paso has a clinic instead of a hospital.
On the second panel, multiple witnesses spoke about the insufficient mental health care provided by the VA. Ms. Jones mentioned in her testimony that 22 veterans die by suicide every day and that she could not understand how a veteran waiting 8 years for a psychiatry appointment is a harmless error by the VA.
Mr. Nicholson shared that members of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) are especially concerned with access to mental health care and relayed that the “shortage of psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, case and social workers and other mental health professionals and service and support staff must be quickly remedied.” Their 2014 IAVA member survey showed that “suicide and mental health care access at the VA are the top challenges facing this generation of veterans.”