The VA Northern California Health Care System unveiled a new facility Thursday for veterans with mental health needs as a tide of criticism continues to rise nationwide over unacceptably long wait times for U.S. veterans seeking care for behavioral health conditions.
As a newly filed East Coast lawsuit seeking class-action status awaits scrutiny in the courts, Veterans Health Administration physicians and mental health leaders at Sacramento’s Mather VA Medical Center campus cut the ceremonial ribbon for the $7.6 million Behavioral Health Inpatient Care Unit.
The one-story center exudes a soothing, quiet sense of place. With interior design motifs such as nature paintings and landscape photographs, as well as calming colors, veterans in distress or emotional turmoil should experience a lower level of stress than they did in the former facility, said Dr. Denise Kellaher, medical director of the inpatient behavior health center.
While the older facility, operated on campus since March 2009, was able to house only 10 veterans at a time, this new stand-alone building will treat up to 16 veterans simultaneously.
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With an average stay amounting to about a week, Veterans Affairs officials calculated that up to 840 patients may be cared for in the new mental health unit during an average year. Other Northern California facilities, such as the mental health unit in Palo Alto, historically have taken longer – 15 to 20 days – to help veterans get back on their feet again, Kellaher said.
“We were mighty before,” she said of the Mather facility and its staff. “We are even mightier now.”
Need for care through group counseling, music therapy, therapeutic visits by dogs and their keepers, as well as peer counseling, has risen annually in recent years. Post-traumatic stress syndrome assistance, suicide prevention, counseling and, where needed, targeted medications, can help veterans in crises return to civilian life in a productive way, officials said.
“I know that the Veterans Administration has worked really hard to provide the care that’s needed,” said U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who attended the ribbon cutting and noted that more than 20 percent of veterans experience some type of mental health condition upon re-entering society. “We’re not there yet. Any veteran who needs access to care should be able to have it within 30 days.”
The nationwide backlog of benefits claims at the VA began peaking in 2009, reaching more than 600,000 claims by 2013. Veterans Affairs officials have been trying to address the need since backlogs came to public attention in the past couple of years.
Addressing the controversy, VA top brass in Northern California released the following statement: “Being able to offer our Veterans the care they deserve when they want to receive it is our utmost priority. For 20 years in a row now, we have seen a greater number of patients each year.
“This year, VA Northern California Health Care System is growing (at a rate) more than 10 times the national VA average. In February, 95 percent of our appointments were seen in under 30 days; and we will continue to add staff and increase our infrastructure to meet the needs of our Veterans so all appointments are completed in a timely manner.”
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