First time mental health patients at the Charlie Norwood Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta are able to get counseling after their initial visit faster on average than at other facilities nationwide, an official with the provider said Friday.
The 12-day average is two days better than the federal government’s two-week goal and five days ahead of the 17-day national average among all VA medical centers in the U.S., Department of Veterans Affairs data shows.
“We have worked hard to keep our numbers low,” said Dr. Lorraine Braswell, the director of the Charlie Norwood trauma and substance abuse recovery clinics and the medical center’s psychology program.
Braswell said the wait time could be shorter, except some Augusta veterans, such as those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, fear hospital settings and many times do not show up for appointments.
“Just because we strive to schedule appointments with each patient 14 days after their initial consults, that does not mean everyone comes to see us,” she said. “One of the hallmark symptoms of PTSD is avoidance. Folks avoid.”
At a time when an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide daily, the VA in 2013 failed to schedule a third of new mental health patient appointments within 14 days, the data show.
Overall, the Department of Veterans Affairs failed to meet its 14-day goal in 34 percent of new mental health appointments in treatment categories including psychiatry, psychology, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.
Some of the worst bottlenecks are at large VA hospitals in Orlando, Houston and Los Angeles, where at least two of every five veterans have to wait more than two weeks to see a counselor.
Braswell, a 20-year Charlie Norwood employee and a former Army Nurse Corps colonel, said it’s different in Augusta.
This year, the VA authorized the medical center to hire 20 new employees in psychiatry, psychology and social work to help handle a patient roster that increased from about 9,500 patients to a current total of 10,000 patients, said David Yarbrough, the business manager of the facility’s Mental Health Service Line.
In response, Braswell said Charlie Norwood staff put new procedures in place to make sure appointments were kept.
If first-time patients do not keep appointments, Braswell said her staff will call them to reschedule at a time that is more convenient.
Also, she said her clinics have added more orientation classes to educate veterans about services Charlie Norwood offers, and extended appointment times to as late as 7:30 p.m. for Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, because many have jobs.
Plus, she said Charlie Norwood’s primary care providers have psychologists on standby to screen veterans and get them comfortable with treatment options.
“In our clinics, what we try to do is make the process as warm and friendly as possible,” she said.
Once patients decide to proceed with treatment, Yarbrough said the medical center has set up an intake clinic where persons new to mental health services are seen by psychologists, social workers and nurse practitioners.
“They go through comprehensive and intensive assessment during initial visits to help us get a better idea of what their needs are and how we can direct them to the right resources quicker,” he said.
Braswell said her clinics anticipate that Veterans Day and the winter holiday period will bring a slight increase in relatives and patients calling to schedule appointments because of veterans who miss or are grieving the loss of loved ones.
But she said that is OK, adding that the VA is working with the Defense Department and Georgia Regents University to find veterans in need of counseling.
Braswell said veterans can receive immediate attention for mental health problems by using a crisis hotline (1-800-273-8255) or going to a VA hospital emergency room.
“We encourage veterans to come forward for treatment,” she said. “That’s why we are here.”