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Originally published Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 3:15 PM

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VA held accountable for limited access to mental-health care

With a nudge from Capitol Hill and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the Department of Veterans Affairs' own Office of the Inspector General poked holes in rosy statistics about veterans' access to mental-health care.

Seattle Times Editorial

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VETERANS of America's continuing wars have found once again that after all the red, white and blue flag-waving, they are considered a cost of doing business — expenses and statistics to be manipulated.

Five years ago, the shocking symbol of benign neglect was Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Wounded veterans from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan were being treated and housed in fetid, moldy rooms and buildings.

At the same time Walter Reed made headlines in 2007, the alarming scale of veterans seeking help for mental-health problems was beginning to be acknowledged. The cases of post-traumatic stress disorder were climbing, and the Veterans Health Administration's limited capacity to offer help was coming into focus.

A report released last week by the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General put a bright light on the bureaucratic games being played at the expense of those who need help.

In 2011, the VA was claiming 95 percent of new patients received full evaluations for care within a 14-day period set by the department. Inspectors found only 49 percent met that standard, and the average wait was 50 days.

The record keeping was further gamed to argue that 95 percent of patients began treatment on their desired start date. The inspector general's report put the number at 64 percent with a 40-day wait, and admitted even that figure was suspect.

Credit Washington Sen. Patty Murray with helping get to the truth. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee she chairs pushed for the review.

"Getting our veterans timely mental-health care can quite frankly often be the difference between life and death. It's the critical period, not unlike the 'golden hour' immediately after a traumatic physical injury," Murray said in a statement. Yet, she noted, the report clearly shows the VA is failing to meet its own mandates for timeliness.

The VA knew what was coming, and pledged to hire 1,600 mental-health providers and 300 support staff. Since the early signs in 2007, the VA reports a 35 percent increase in veterans seeking mental-health services.

Failing to help those who step forward to serve their country is unconscionable. The nature of the wounds suffered has changed along with the nature of the battlefield. The VA must continually adjust.

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