SPOKANE, Wash – A local veteran recently contacted KHQ saying a Veterans Affairs Medical Center employee told him to say he's suicidal to get a faster appointment.
The story sparked a firestorm – both from within the community and beyond. Staffers from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee were visiting a number of VA's in Washington, and when they came to Spokane, this was one of the topics that were discussed.
A representative from the VAMC is addressing the issue, saying he's deeply concerned, and this is not their policy.
"If there were a psychiatric emergency, then we would absolutely want that veteran to come in to our emergency room," Dr. Quinn Bastian told KHQ.
Bastian is the Chief of the Behavioral Health Services clinic at the Spokane VAMC, and says he wants veterans to know there are resources to help.
The veteran who initially contacted KHQ served most of the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is diagnosed with PTSD. He said he needed his medicine adjusted immediately, but when he called to make the appointment, he was booked out almost two months.
Dr. Bastian says the ER is always open for veterans with a critical need.
"Whenever a veteran needs care, especially if it's something urgent or something acute, they should just come in," he said.
However, like all hospitals, there is a wait-time for appointments. Right now, it's an average of 7 days to see a primary care provider, and 2 months to see a psychiatrist.
"Here in Spokane at the VA hospital, we have been short-staffed for psychiatry for some time now, we've been between 50-60% staffed for a couple of years now," he said.
The Spokane VA is has three open positions for psychiatrists and is actively trying to fill them.
While that may not sound like much, it represents an additional 1,500 appointments that would be available every month.
Dr. Bastian says if you are a veteran in Spokane, and you've had problems getting your healthcare needs addressed, let them know so they can try and fix it.
"I think in any health care system people know that if there's an emergency and you want to be seen quickly, you say you have chest pain, that's just known in the community," he added. "I think in the mental health field it's also known, if you want to get in to the top of the line you say you're suicidal. That message is kind of out there in the community but I hate the thought that a veteran would ever be told at any VA that they would have to lie to come in and get treatment. That is not our practice, is not our policy, we're here to help."
Because it's a personnel matter, the VA can not say if the employee in question was fired, suspended, or in re-training. They did say they "are addressing it" with this person, and that they've had internal discussions with all of their front-line staff that come in contact with veterans.