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VA Mental Health: Action Needed to Improve Access Policies and Wait-Time Data

GAO-16-170T Published: Oct 28, 2015. Publicly Released: Oct 28, 2015.
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What GAO Found

The way in which the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Veterans Health Administration (VHA) calculates veteran mental health wait times may not always reflect the overall amount of time a veteran waits for care. VHA uses a veteran’s preferred date (determined when an appointment is scheduled) to calculate the wait time for that patient’s full mental health evaluation, the primary entry point for mental health care. Of the 100 veterans whose records GAO reviewed, 86 received full mental health evaluations within 30 days of their preferred dates. On average, this was within 4 days. However, GAO also found

  • veterans’ preferred dates were, on average, 26 days after their initial requests or referrals for mental health care, and ranged from 0 to 279 days. Further, GAO found the average time in which veterans received their first treatment across the five VA medical centers (VAMC) in its review ranged from 1 to 57 days from the full mental health evaluation.
  • conflicting access policies for allowable wait times for a full mental health evaluation—14 days (according to VHA’s mental health handbook) versus 30 days (set in response to recent legislation) from the veteran’s preferred date—created confusion among VAMC officials about which policy they are expected to follow. These conflicting policies are inconsistent with federal internal control standards and can hinder officials’ ability to ensure veterans are receiving timely access to mental health care.

VHA monitors access to mental health care, but the lack of clear policies on wait-time data precludes effective oversight. GAO found VHA’s wait-time data may not be comparable over time and between VAMCs. Specifically

  • data may not be comparable over time. VHA has not clearly communicated the definitions used, such as how a new patient is identified, or changes made to these definitions. This limits the reliability and usefulness of the data in determining progress in meeting stated objectives for veterans’ timely access to mental health care.
  • data may not be comparable between VAMCs. For example, when open-access appointments are used, data are not comparable between VAMCs. Open-access appointments are typically blocks of time for veterans to see providers without a scheduled appointment. GAO found inconsistencies in the implementation of these appointments, including one VAMC that manually maintained a list of veterans seeking mental health care outside of VHA’s scheduling system. Without guidance stating how to manage and track open-access appointments, data comparisons between VAMCs may be misleading. Moreover, VAMCs may lose track of patients referred for mental health care, placing veterans at risk for negative outcomes.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony summarizes the information contained in GAO's October 2015 report, entitled VA Mental Health: Clearer Guidance on Access Policies and Wait-Time Data Needed (GAO-16-24).

For more information, contact Debra Draper at (202) 512-7114 or


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