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VA under fire 

From the Iraq War's first days, veterans' groups, mental health organizations and some members of Congress have claimed that the Department of Veterans Affairs is unprepared to treat the tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers likely to come back with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a debilitating psychological condition.

A new federal report indicates those fears - which were outlined in a Jan. 27 CL cover story, "Haunted Visions" - are not unfounded.

On Feb. 16, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, released a report criticizing the VA for failing to improve its PTSD services. The report follows a five-month investigation by the GAO that looked at whether the VA had implemented 24 of 37 recommendations made last year by the Special Committee on PTSD.

The GAO concluded that the VA had not fully addressed any of the 24 recommendations, which range from hiring regional PTSD coordinators to developing standards for PTSD clinicians to establishing PTSD screening systems.

Specifically, the GAO report found that the VA had met 14 recommendations only partially and left 10 completely unmet; nearly half of those were long-standing since 1985. The GAO also determined that the VA had no plans to address the majority of recommendations until at least 2007.

"This report confirms my concerns about the VA's capacity and ability to meet the rising demand of veterans seeking mental health services," Rep. Lane Evans, D-Illinois, ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said in a Feb. 16 statement. Evans had asked the GAO to investigate the VA's PTSD services last May.

The VA adamantly refuted the GAO's findings. "They've taken a negative stand on what this agency does, and the report discounts all the wonderful accomplishments we've made," says Dr. Mark Shelhorse, the VA's acting deputy consultant for patient care services for mental health.

According to Shelhorse, seven of the recommendations the GAO categorized as partially met have been fully satisfied, including providing PTSD screenings for new veterans. He also says the VA allocated $15 million for additional PTSD and substance-abuse programs, and was placing teams of PTSD experts in areas with a high density of veterans.

While estimates vary, the VA now says 6,400 veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have sought help for PTSD since those wars began. The GAO questioned whether that number is accurate. Regardless, the PTSD rate is expected to rise as more soldiers return home, and the GAO urged VA brass to speed up the recommended improvements. The agency plans a follow-up investigation later this year.

Next week, "Frontline" will air a special on PTSD. "The Soldier's Heart" can be seen on Georgia Public Broadcasting at 10 p.m. on March 1.

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