Mr. AKAKA: Mr President, The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been a recognized leader in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With its outreach efforts and expert mental health staff, VA has made great strides in its treatment of those suffering from the psychological wounds of war. Unfortunately, VA still has a long way to go before it will achieve the level of PTSD treatment our veterans deserve. Demonstrating this fact is a February 2005 GAO report, which found that VA has not fully met any of the 24 clinical care and education recommendations made in 2004 by VA's Special Committee on PTSD.
Titled ?VA Should Expedite the Implementation of Recommendations Needed to Improve Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Services,? this report raises serious concerns about VA's ability to treat our veterans' mental health. In fact, I would like to quote one of the report's most disturbing points, that ?VA's delay in fully implementing the recommendations raises questions about VA's capacity to identify and treat veterans returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who may be at risk for developing PTSD, while maintaining PTSD services for veterans currently receiving them.? Further adding to the seriousness of this statement is that GAO reported in September 2004 that officials at six of seven VA medical facilities said they may not be able to meet an increased demand for PTSD services. Moreover, the Special Committee reported in 2004 that ?VA does not have sufficient capacity to meet the needs of new combat veterans while still providing for veterans of past wars.?
Mr. President, this is further proof of the need for increased funding for VA health care. If we do not give VA the necessary funds, how can we expect it to properly care for the flux of new veterans when it cannot even care for those it currently treats? In fact, VA officials have cited resource constraints as the primary reason for not implementing many of the Special Committee's recommendations.
In all, GAO found that based on the time frames in VA's draft mental health strategic plan, 23 of the 24 recommendations may not be fully implemented until fiscal year 2007 or later. The remaining recommendation is targeted for full implementation by fiscal year 2005, four years after the Special Committee first recommended it.
Additionally, the GAO report found that ten of the recommendations are longstanding, as they are consistent with those made in the Special Committee's first report in 1985. VA agreed then that these recommendations would improve the provision of PTSD services to veterans, yet the changes still are not scheduled for full implementation for another two years at the earliest. These delayed initiatives include developing a national PTSD education plan for VA, improving VA collaboration with DoD on PTSD education, and providing increased access to PTSD services.
PTSD is caused by an extremely stressful event and can develop years after military service. Mental health experts estimate that the intensity of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan could cause more than 15 percent of servicemembers returning from these conflicts to develop PTSD, with a total of nearly 30 percent needing some kind of mental health treatment. While there is no cure for PTSD, theses experts believe early identification and treatment of PTSD symptoms may lessen their severity and improve the overall quality of life for individuals with this disorder.
Congress required the establishment of VA's Special Committee on PTSD in 1984, with the original purpose primarily to aid Vietnam-era veterans diagnosed with PTSD. One of the Special Committee's main charges is to carry out an ongoing assessment of VA's capacity to diagnose and treat PTSD and to make recommendations for improving VA's PTSD services.
In addition, a March 20, 2005, article in the Los Angles Times pointed out how concerned veterans' advocates and even some VA psychiatrists are with VA's handling of PTSD services, saying VA hospitals are ?flirting with disaster.? The article highlighted the situation at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, specifically the Los Angeles VA hospital, which last year closed its psychiatric emergency room. A decade ago, VA hospitals in Los Angeles had rooms to treat 450 mentally ill patients each day. After a series of cutbacks and consolidations, however, the main hospital can now accommodate only 90 veterans overnight in its psychiatric wards. During the same 10-year period, the overall number of mental health patients treated by the VA Greater Los Angeles increased by about 28 percent, to 19,734 veterans in 2004. Mr. President, if this is how VA handles PTSD care for our veterans at the nation's largest VA hospital, how does that bode for the rest of the nation?
VA must make strides in its provision of mental health services and outreach efforts to servicemembers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. If we are not careful and do not give VA proper resources, progress will be impossible. As Ranking Member of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, I will work to ensure that does not happen. As such, I am pleased to tell you that today I am offering an amendment to the Supplemental to partially fix this problem. Our Nation's veterans deserve the best care possible, for both their physical wounds and mental. Thank you, Mr. President.