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'Surge home' overwhelms Veterans Affairs clinics

With many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Veterans Affairs has seen treatment requests and disability claims soar.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 3, 2009

Help for veterans: Jim Fiebke of Rochester, Minn., is one of a growing number of Vietnam veterans flooding Veterans Affairs clinics with disability claims tied to combat duty almost four decades ago

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When he got home from war, Rey Leal's biggest problem was that he couldn't sleep as he tried to free himself of the images of combat in Iraq.

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"My thing was turning off that movie in my head," says Mr. Leal, a former marine and now a student at a college in south Texas. Ultimately, he sought mental-health assistance at a Veterans Affairs clinic in the Rio Grande Valley. But he found navigating the bureaucratic tangle a strain: He waited a month or more for appointments with the sole psychologist there.

With hundreds of thousands of veterans like Leal trying to get help, the VA is experiencing an unprecedented demand for its services.

Among the roughly 2 million people who have deployed, there are some 300,000 cases of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and thousands more of traumatic brain injury, according to a RAND report last year. And in the past decade, the number of disability claims that the VA processes has skyrocketed.

Even with a heavy infusion of funding – a 50 percent increase since 2006 – the VA has been hard-pressed to meet veterans' needs. President Obama has outlined yet more funding, but the question remains: Will a new generation of vets get the resources and help it is likely to need from the VA for years to come?

"The surge home has begun," says Patrick Campbell, a top official at the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group, and himself a veteran of the National Guard.

The VA has tried to keep up with the demand, dramatically increasing the number of mental-health professionals and counselors over the past four years. More than 17,500 mental-health personnel are across the VA system.

The VA is also hiring more personnel for claims. It increased its processing staff by about 58 percent between 2005 and 2009. It's done this for good reason: The number of claims that the VA closes out annually has increased 60 percent since 1999 – from 458,000 to about 729,000 in fiscal year 2008, the Government Accountability Office reported last month. At the same time, the number of claims that are in "pending" status – claims that have not yet been resolved – has increased some 65 percent to about 343,000, the report said.

"It is indeed a mess. They are indeed in a hole," says a staffer on Capitol Hill familiar with the VA issues, who asked not to be named because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly on the subject.

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