LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The Department of Veterans Affairs is adding staff to its hospitals to meet the mental health needs of vets of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As Erin Toner of WUWM in Milwaukee reports, some clinicians say the help cannot come soon enough.
ERIN TONER, BYLINE: The VA hospital in Milwaukee is a hectic place. On most mornings you have to circle the parking lots over and over to find a spot. Luckily there's valet service if patients would rather leave the parking to someone else.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good morning, buddy, how are you doing?
TONER: And once inside, the hallways and elevators are jammed with patients, visitors and staff.
(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATOR)
TONER: One of the reasons this hospital is so busy is a sharp increase in mental health appointments over the past few years. On the third floor, Ashley Schultz, a licensed clinical social worker, is looking over her schedule for the next day.
ASHLEY SCHULTZ: I have my first meeting at 8:00. I see a patient at 9:00, 10:00, 11:00, 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00, and have a group at 4:30.
TONER: Schultz is part of a team that provides psychotherapy to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Ninety-five percent of her patients have post-traumatic stress disorder.
SCHULTZ: You know, a lot of us are booked a few weeks in advance, and so it's hard to get people in, but I think we do a really good job of accommodating that, whether it's, you know, scheduling somebody over our lunch, or skipping a meeting or even doing like some kind of intervention over the phone with them.
TONER: Veterans who qualify for mental health care are supposed to receive their first evaluations within 14 days. But the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs reported recently that less than half of patients nationwide were evaluated within that window last year.
Bert Berger is mental health manager at the Milwaukee hospital. He says his department does meet the federal standard almost all the time, but it's not easy.
BERT BERGER: We're stretched, so that's why we do need additional staff.
TONER: Berger says Milwaukee has begun recruiting for nine new workers - a combination of nurses, psychologists and social workers.
BERGER: This will make it much better for us. This is going to help our system to provide potentially, you know, more rapid treatment.
TONER: About 10 miles away from the Milwaukee VA, 33-year-old Army veteran Matthew Dzemske is nervously sipping coffee. He says he's skeptical the new mental health staff will make enough of a difference.
MATTHEW DZEMSKE: Have you walked through the VA?
DZEMSKE: Like, you've walked through the halls?
TONER: Oh yeah.
DZEMSKE: What do you think?
TONER: Very busy.
TONER: Dzemske says it took much longer than 14 days to get his initial appointment back in 2010. And he says vets are still waiting too long for care.
DZEMSKE: I am always down for like adding more people and, you know, more qualified people, but nine's just not enough.
TONER: In addition to PTSD, Dzemske has a brain injury that causes migraines and seizures. He says he stopped going to the VA recently because the therapy and medications weren't helping, and he felt the staff didn't take the time, or have the time, to really listen to him. Dzemske says his symptoms are so severe he can't work, go to school, or even socialize.
DZEMSKE: You've spent years killing people, and what do you do with that when you get out? They don't de-program the soldier out of you when you get out, they just like chuck you out onto the street and go, well, it was nice knowing you kind of thing. Your only actual skill is the taking of another man's life, and that's, let's face it, not a marketable skill.
TONER: The Department of Veterans Affairs says it will be aggressive in recruiting candidates for the new mental health positions and hopes to have most on board within six months.
For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.