WASHINGTON—The Department of Veterans Affairs is on a pace to see nearly 20,000 new cases of post-combat stress this year among service members who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan, more than six times the number of cases that officials had expected.
The latest report on patient visits to VA medical facilities shows that nearly 5,000 service members were initially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder during the first three months of this year, on top of nearly 5,000 new diagnoses that the VA had reported for the last three months of 2005.
The VA had predicted that it would see 2,900 new cases in fiscal 2006, which runs from Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30, 2006.
The VA declined to comment Monday.
"The demand for mental health is not going down," said Cathy Wiblemo, the deputy director for mental health services at the American Legion. "It's definitely going up."
Knight Ridder reported last month that the VA had dramatically underestimated the number of service members who would return from Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The new report drew immediate criticism from some in Congress.
"Frankly, I don't think that VA's budget planned for this number of new veterans with mental health concerns," Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, a member of the House Veteran's Affairs Committee, said in a statement.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that can cause serious psychiatric and social problems. Combat, a plane crash or other traumatic experiences can trigger it. Untreated, it can lead to drug addiction, homelessness and other social problems.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been particularly stressful because they involve urban warfare amid civilians who are hard to distinguish from the enemy. There are no front lines or safe areas, and the enemy uses improvised bombs and ambushes.
A statement from the Democratic members of the House VA Committee said that even as the number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases increased, the VA had cut back the number of PTSD therapy sessions for veterans by 25 percent in the last 10 years.
In a related issue, the Government Accountability Office recently found that the Pentagon didn't seek further mental-health treatment for eight out of 10 soldiers deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan who showed signs of post-combat stress.
William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, responded that the GAO report was "flawed."