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Milwaukee's VA Hospital Cuts In-Patient Stays


Some veterans in Wisconsin are raising concerns about the mental health care they receive. A veterans' affairs hospital in Milwaukee plans to cut the residential treatment program time in half. Officials say the treatment will be more beneficial that way. Their challenge is persuading patients. Erin Toner of member station WUWM sent us this report.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Unintelligible) birdie.

JOE MITCHELL: Yeah, that's an eagle. Isn't it pretty?


ERIN TONER, BYLINE: Joe Mitchell is back on full-time daddy duty, about a week after leaving a residential treatment program at the VA hospital in Milwaukee. The 30-year-old Army veteran was treated for alcohol and drug abuse, which he says was directly related to his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. Five years after serving, he's still haunted by the numerous casualties his unit suffered.

MITCHELL: Grief and guilt, and some shame for some of the things that happened over there, and some of the stuff I had to witness. It was pretty tough.

TONER: A few months ago, Mitchell started smoking pot and drinking, which resulted in a couple of DUIs and car accidents. In September, he checked into the residential program at the Milwaukee VA, where he found support and felt useful.

MITCHELL: Maybe you're in a different part of your recovery than somebody else and they're struggling, and for that day, you've got the right thing to say to pull them up.

TONER: Mitchell credits his recovery to his 10-week stay in the program. But early next year, the Milwaukee VA will reduce the time patients like Mitchell stay in the program, from an average of 90 days, down to 45 days.

Karen Berte is a clinical psychologist at the hospital. She says this is not a budget-cutting move by the VA, rather it's an effort to deliver a more beneficial intensive treatment program over a shorter duration.

KAREN BERTE: It's not designed to provide care, from the beginning, throughout the complete resolution of all symptoms. Residential care is really designed to be a more intensive level of care to help someone through a difficult time and prepare them for continuing their care on an outpatient basis.

TONER: Berte says the shortened program will offer a more rigorous psychotherapy regimen, and activities to promote a healthy, structured lifestyle.

VICTORIA DONNEWALD: I would view that structure is a good thing, because certainly we do need it.

TONER: Twenty-seven-year old Victoria Donnewald was an Air Force medic from 2002 to 2006. She's homeless and being treated for bipolar disorder and heroin addiction. Donnewald says the 45- day program may be long enough to get sober, but it's too short for vets like her to get healthy, avoid relapse, and prepare to reintegrate back into society.

DONNEWALD: As far as, like, the mental healing, maybe long-term damage from like malnutrition, that can't be remedied that fast. The VA is like its own world and veterans like me feel safer being around other veterans, and especially on the grounds, where there's federal police there, you know.

TONER: There is no federal policy regarding residential lengths of stay, though most VA hospitals have transitioned to the 45-day model, including the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in Chicago. Anthony Peterson, who oversees the center's PTSD program, says the key is providing intensive and effective treatment so veterans can move on with their lives.

ANTHONY PETERSON: They have goals. They have dreams. They have jobs. And if we're able to meet their needs where they're at, so it minimizes the other disruptions in their life, then really, that's what it's about.

TONER: Officials at the Milwaukee VA say they're confident they'll be able to accomplish the new shortened program by better managing schedules and extending therapists' hours. And they stress treatment will continue to be tailored to each patient.

For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Erin Toner is a reporter for WUWM. Erin was WUWM's All Things Considered local host from 2006 to 2010. She began her public radio career in 1999 at WMUK in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Prior to joining WUWM in 2006, Toner spent five years at WKAR in East Lansing, Michigan.