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O'Rourke: veteran access to mental health care is crisis in El Paso

By: Stacey Welsh
EL PASO, Texas -- El Paso veterans often wait more than a year for access to mental health care, and U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke said it's a crisis. O'Rourke shared this concern with the Department of Veterans Affairs in a congressional hearing this week.

"Something is deeply wrong with the VA in El Paso. That is not to say that there's anything wrong with the doctors, nurses or the mental health practitioners there. There just aren't enough of them. We need more resources from the VA inD.C.," O'Rourke said.

While O'Rourke said he is also concerned with improving the Fort Bliss National Cemetery and speeding up disability claims, the lack of mental health care access to veterans is his top priority.

John Ceballos is the spokesperson for the El Paso area chapter of the 82nd Airborne Division, and he said many of the veterans his organization represents have noticed the problem.

"I think it's critical that we have the medical personnel. They need the professional help," Ceballos said.

Ceballos expects the VA could outsource doctors from local hospitals to provide more access to health care.

"Right now, if a veteran misses their appointment, it could be a few more months before they can reschedule it again," Ceballos said.

The VA said it is already taking action.

"What we've done [in El Paso] is hired up to the ceiling that they have; 80 mental health professionals," Robert Petzel said. Petzel is the Under Secretary for Health within the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I'm not satisfied yet with [the VA's] answer. I won't be satisfied until we get those resources here. We're going to continue to stay on the attack and press [the VA] to make sure that El Paso is a priority," O'Rourke said.

O'Rourke said new legislation could keep El Paso from becoming one of the lowest performing VA systems in the country.

"I'm about to file a bill that will give VA psychologists the power to prescribe medications, which they don't have today. They have that in the Department of Defense. They have that in other branches of our government. They don't have that within the VA, and we desperately need it," O'Rourke said.

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