WASHINGTON—The Department of Veterans Affairs failed to fully spend a promised $300 million since 2005 to fill critical gaps in mental health services for returning troops and others, congressional investigators said.
The money was supposed to be used to improve awareness of the VA's mental health programs and provide better access to them for troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, women and other veterans suffering from serious mental illnesses.
But a Government Accountability Office report released Thursday found that the agency underspent the money and that not all of what it did spend went to those programs.
"Veterans expect that wounds suffered in service, be they to mind or body, will be cared for by the nation they served," Rep. Henry Brown Jr., R-S.C., said during a hearing he chaired Thursday on mental health issues. "We will exercise greater oversight on this issue now to determine what VA is spending and how it is being spent, to ensure that funds allocated by the American people are used as intended."
The VA didn't respond to requests for comment on the report.
The hearing was before the health subcommittee of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. The GAO's findings became yet another broadside at the VA and the Bush administration, which veterans groups have criticized for cutting benefits and not anticipating how the Iraq war would stretch the capacity of programs to treat the wounded.
The Kansas City Star reported in May that the VA had dramatically underestimated the number of troops that would return from Iraq this year suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The GAO reached a similar conclusion in a separate report last week.
In Thursday's GAO report, investigators found that the VA spent only $53 million of the $100 million it planned to use in fiscal 2005 on gaps in care under a mental health strategic plan. It sent $35 million of the $100 million to a VA general fund, where the money could be spent on a variety of programs.
"It is likely that some of these funds were not used" as intended, the GAO said.
Investigators also said that the VA didn't tell its hospital and health care officials that the $35 million was available and they "were unaware that any specific portion of their general allocation was to be used for mental health strategic plan initiatives."
Some of the money was used to pay for routine mental health programs, the GAO said.
Meanwhile, the $12 million remaining from the $100 million allocation went unspent, the GAO said, because VA officials said the fiscal year was running out.
Similarly, the GAO said that in fiscal 2006, which ends Saturday, the VA budgeted $200 million for the strategic plan, but $42 million remains unspent.
"Gaps in mental health services remain," said Rep. Michael Michaud of Maine, the ranking Democrat on the health subcommittee. "The mental health strategic plan is good. However, without a real commitment to funding, the plan will not become a reality."
Besides the GAO report, the hearing dealt with the rising number of post-traumatic stress disorder cases and traumatic brain injuries among troops.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., said the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington has so far treated more than 650 troops from Iraq and Afghanistan for traumatic brain injuries—40 percent of all the troops from those combat zones the hospital has seen.
Col. Charles Hoge, director of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, said 15 percent to 17 percent of troops who served in combat have screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder.
``Please don't hide behind statistics and bureaucrat-ese," Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., told Hoge and other medical experts at the hearing. "Let us know you have some passion for solving this issue."
Dr. Gerald Cross, a top VA health official, replied, "I can assure you we do have passion, and we have the passion for caring for our veterans."