The weekend shooting death of a former Army paratrooper in Kansas City highlights deficiencies in the care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said during a visit to to Kansas City on Thursday.
On Sunday, police shot 26-year-old Issac Sims after he emerged from his family’s home and allegedly pointed a rifle at officers. Family and friends said that Sims suffered post-traumatic stress disorder from military duty in Iraq, according to news reports.
His family told The Kansas City Star that the local VA hospital had recently told Sims it would have a bed for him in 30 days.
Blunt did not directly criticize the Kansas City VA hospital. But he said the department must do more to find help for people like Sims who need immediate assistance..
“There was a bed for that person somewhere in the region, somewhere in the country, and he could’ve gotten there, if the VA had had the ability and the tools to do that,” Blunt said. “And I’m prepared to help them get the tools to do that, if they don’t have them now, and if they have them now, I’m prepared to find out why they are not using them.”
Blunt’s visit was his last scheduled stop on a statewide mental health tour, which his office said was meant to help improve access to quality behavioral health treatment for all Americans – including members of the military, veterans and families.
His appearance at the offices of Truman Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Services included a roundtable discussion with a range of officials involved with mental health, including Kansas City police Sgt. Sean Hess and Chris Bell of Lee’s Summit, senior vice commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Missouri.
Hess told Blunt that about one of every five or six service calls involves someone who is having a mental health crisis. “One out of four on the weekends,” he added.
Bell praised the local VA hospital for providing good care to him and his nephew.
Much of the discussion centered on integrating mental health care with treatment of medical conditions.
Marsha Morgan, Truman’s chief operating officer for behavioral health, estimated that 80 percent of the system’s patients who have chronic conditions also have behavioral health needs.
Blunt said that legislation he co-sponsored aims to improve coordination of mental health with medical care at community mental health clinics. Officials at the meeting said they intend for Missouri to be one of eight pilot states authorized in the legislation.
“A mental health problem that is imminent is as imminent as a heart attack,” Blunt said, “and you don’t tell somebody with a heart attack we will see you in 30 days.”
Blunt has joined with other lawmakers in raising questions about the mental health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
On May 13, he joined with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, in writing a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki demanding answers to allegations that VA mental health providers in St. Louis were, as they wrote, “making inefficient use of their time, seeing patients for only a fraction of the workday, and in the process creating delays in the provision of mental health services for veterans in need.”
The allegations came from the former chief of psychiatry at the VA hospital in St. Louis, Dr. Jose Mathews, and arose amid broader complaints from lawmakers over allegations that VA hospitals around the country concealed that they were not seeing patients in a timely fashion.
Blunt met with officials from the VA hospital in St. Louis Wednesday as part of his tour.
Last week, he and two other Senate colleagues demanded that the VA explain findings in two mental health studies by the Institute of Medicine regarding treatment for service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as treatment for their families.
That letter mentioned a deadly shooting in April at Fort Hood in Texas, where a soldier killed three people and then himself.
Blunt said he did not agree with other members of Congress who are calling for Shinseki to resign or for President Obama to fire him.
The secretary’s exit could actually slow things down, he said, if a new secretary has to come in and master the job.
“This is not a ‘one person gets fired, you throw more money at the problem (issue),’” he said. “It is what do we do with all the resources we have available to us today health-care-wide to have more access points, to have more information available to meet people’s needs at the time they have needs.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Issac Sims' first name.
Mike Sherry is a health reporter for the Hale Center for Journalism at KCPT.