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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

GAO Report: 4 of 5 at Risk for Combat PTSD Not Getting Help

An important draft of a GAO report looking into combat PTSD has surfaced, and the Washington Post's premiere reporter on this issue, Shankar Vedantam, will deliver the news on page A08 tomorrow. Let's take a look at it tonight.

Click on 'Article Link' below tags for more...

From the Washington Post:

Nearly four in five service members returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who were found to be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were never referred by government clinicians for further help, according to a Government Accountability Office report due for release today.

The report says Defense Department officials were unable to explain why only some troops were referred for help. Many veterans groups have accused the government of playing down the risk of PTSD because of concerns over skyrocketing costs.

178,664 service members were screened for PTSD risk via a survey. Of those same 178,664, 9,145 tested postive for PTSD risk. Yet, only 22% were referred to receive medical help. Breaking it down: Army and Air Force each referred 23% for further treatment; the Navy referred 18%; and the Marines about 15%.

The final report will have the formal responses from the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments. In the draft report, Pentagon officials are quoted as saying that not all service members who gave positive responses on the screening test needed help, but the report said the officials could not specify what factors are involved in referring some people but not others.

Asked to comment late yesterday, the Defense Department said only that it has "several comprehensive and proactive programs to deal with PTSD." Spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said the most knowledgeable officials were not available so late in the day.

"You would think that [referrals for treatment] would be the point of the whole screening tool," said Veterans Affairs spokesman Jim Benson. He said that the Defense Department was solely responsible for administering the screening test and making referral decisions.

The article goes on to explain that the PTSD risk questionnaire is administered as the troops return home from combat via their post-deployment health assessment [pdha]. After the form is completed, it's reviewed by the DOD; the DOD then determines who will be referred for further medical evaluation and help.

Deciding whether to refer service members for help involves judgment, the report said, but the Defense Department "cannot provide reasonable assurance that all [Iraq and Afghanistan] service members who need referrals for further mental health or combat stress evaluations receive such help."

Rep. Michael Michaud (Maine), the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee on health, said screening service members for PTSD was the right thing to do, but questioned the utility of the screening if people at risk did not receive help.

"When 78 percent of the service members who are at risk of developing PTSD do not get a referral for further evaluation, then it's clear the assessment system is not working," he said in a statement. "Early assessment can prevent tragedy. Untreated PTSD can lead to substance abuse, severe depression and even suicide."

We'll wait to see what further response there will be to this information -- which is troubling, to say the least.

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