WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama, responding to unprecedented waves of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffering from combat trauma, has ordered an expansion of mental health services including a beefed-up suicide hotline and more counselors to help those who cannot get into clogged VA facilities.
Although the Obama administration has taken steps in the past to meet the rising demand for mental health and other veterans services, the experience of many veterans is that the hospitals and medical centers of the Department of Veterans Affairs are overwhelmed.
Almost a quarter-million new veterans have been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
VA officials have insisted that they are meeting the challenge. Since 2009 the VA, under the direction of former Army Chief of Staff, Eric Shinseki -- a Vietnam War amputee -- has increased its mental health staff by 41 percent and boosted its spending on mental health services by 39 percent, to about $6 billion a year.
The VA launched a fleet of 70 mobile outreach vans to get services to veterans in remote areas, and with secure teleconferencing, expects this year to hold 200,000 mental health consultations.
In an interview last year, the VA's undersecretary for health, Dr. Robert Petzel, asserted that the horror stories about veterans having to wait weeks and months for mental health services were a thing of the past. Since 2005, he said, the VA has hired 7,500 mental health therapists, and whatever shortages existed had been fixed.
"We do not have any evidence that we're not able to provide mental health services. So there isn't a shortage -- there just isn't," he said.
But the VA's own inspector general reported earlier this year that the VA can't accurately measure how long veterans have to wait for help. The VA asserted that it sees 95 percent of veterans within 14 days, however, the inspector general's investigation determined that the average wait was actually 50 days, and more than a third of new patients never received timely care.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called the findings "infuriating."
But veterans and VA workers are wearily familiar with these shortcomings. The VA's mental health facilities "are very crowded -- we don't have enough counselors or providers for what's coming in," a VA psychiatric nurse recently told The Huffington Post. As a result, she said, many veterans are "out there floating around doing whatever they can to cope, which is usually drugs and alcohol."
In Philadelphia, a veteran with two combat tours in Iraq and a drug habit got in to see the VA mental health providers, but his sessions were reduced from several times a week to once a week, then to once a month. "They are just overwhelmed," 32-year-old Jamie Beavers, who was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI, told The Huffington Post this summer.
And many take their own lives in desperation -- about 18 veterans per day, according to the VA. That's in addition to the rising number of active-duty soldiers who take their own lives.
The VA's suicide hotline currently receives about 17,000 calls a day with a staff of about two dozen professional counselors.
The White House executive order issued Friday directs the VA to expand the capacity of the suicide hotline by 50 percent before the end of the year. It also orders the VA to ensure that all veterans are seen for an initial assessment by a mental health professional within 24 hours.
To help meet that high bar, the White House ordered the VA to hire an additional 800 veterans to provide peer-to-peer counseling. And the VA must work with the Department of Health and Human Services to hire community health centers, mental health clinics, local substance abuse treatment facilities and other organizations that receive HHS grants to expand their clientele to include veterans.
And because combat trauma, substance abuse and homelessness are so often linked, the White House also ordered a review of every veteran household whose home was foreclosed since 2006. Those wrongly foreclosed will be compensated equal to a minimum of lost equity, plus interest and a refund for money lost because they were wrongly denied the opportunity to reduce their mortgage payments, the White House said.
In a statement Friday, Shinseki said these initiatives "will have a positive impact on the lives of veterans and their families for generations to come."
But he warned that the costs of taking care of veterans will continue to rise. "History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the wars have ended," Shinseki said.
Also on HuffPost:
Start of War: Oct. 7, 2001
<em>American soldiers hide behind a barricade during an explosion, prior to fighting with Taliban forces November 26, 2001 at the fortress near Mazar-e-Sharif, northern Afghanistan. (Photo by Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images)</em>
Number of U.S. Troops in Afghanistan: 88,000
<em>US Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed from the USS Bataan's Amphibious Ready Group arrive December 14, 2001 at an undisclosed location with field gear and weapons. (Photo by Johnny Bivera/Getty Images)</em>
Number of Troops at War's Peak
<em>U.S. Marines begin to form up their convoy at a staging area near Kandahar, Afghanistan, as they await orders to begin their trek to Kandahar to take control of the airfield 13 December, 2001. (DAVE MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> Number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the war's peak: About 101,000 in 2010. Allies provided about 40,000.
<em>U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a televised address from the East Room of the White House on June 22, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais-Pool/Getty Images)</em><br><br> Withdrawal plans: 23,000 U.S. troops expected to come home by the end of the summer, leaving about 68,000 in Afghanistan. Most U.S. troops expected to be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, though the U.S. is expected to maintain a sizeable force of military trainers and a civilian diplomatic corps.
Number of U.S. Casualties
<em>American flags, each one representing the 4,454 American soldiers killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, move in the breeze at The Christ Congregational United Church March 17, 2008 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)</em><br><br> Number of U.S. casualties: At least 1,828 members of the U.S. military killed as of Tuesday, according to an Associated Press count. According to the Defense Department, 15,786 U.S. service members have been wounded in hostile action.
Afghan Civilian Casualties
<em>Asan Bibi, 9, sits on a bench as burn cream is applied to her at Mirwais hospital October 13, 2009 Kandahar, Afghanistan. She, her sister and mother were badly burned when a helicopter fired into their tent in the middle of the night on October 3rd, according to their father. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)</em><br><br> Afghan civilian casualties: According to the United Nations, 11,864 civilians were killed in the conflict between 2007, when the U.N. began reporting statistics, and the end of 2011.
Cost of the War
<em>An Iraqi man counts money behind a pile of American dollars in his currency exchange bureau in Baghdad on April 11, 2012. (ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> Cost of the war: $443 billion from fiscal year 2001 through fiscal year 2011, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Number of Times Obama Has Visited Afghanistan
<em>US President Barack Obama speaks to troops during a visit to Bagram Air Field on May 1, 2012 in Afghanistan. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images) </em><br><br> Number of times Obama has visited Afghanistan: 3 as president, including Tuesday, and 1 as a presidential candidate.