A sign at a VA hospital in CaliforniaParker Knight/Flickr.com

WASHINGTON – A senior Veterans Affairs official said today that the agency is now better prepared to help former military personnel cope with the emotional and psychological trauma of war, but key members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee remained skeptical amid intensifying demand for mental health care.

“We are making a difference,” Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, told the committee, citing the hiring of more than 1,000 mental health care workers and a slight drop in the suicide rate among veterans who receive care from the VA system.

Yet that hiring total, announced by the VA earlier this week in a news release, fell 600 employees short of the goal the agency made after an April audit by the agency’s inspector general.

And while the agency had exceeded its goal for hiring nonclinical support staff, it had hired half of the promised psychiatrists, according to a new auditor’s report released today.

“Hiring more non-clinical staff than required does not compensate for the lack of clinical staff and may not improve efficiency,” the inspector general said in its written comments.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chided the agency for focusing on process over progress – “the number of people hired – numbers, numbers, numbers” – in its testimony today before the committee he leads.

“The most important number is how many veterans are getting healthy, or healthier, or helped,” Miller said.

Most of the numbers related to veteran suicides are bleak. On Feb. 1, the agency upped its estimate of the total number of veterans who commit suicide from 18 to 22 a day. Even when controlling for other factors, the suicide rate for veterans remains double that of people who never served in the military.

In addition, the VA’s estimate did not include a review of data from 29 states, including California and Texas, so the real total could be much higher. Those states did not provide data to the VA.

But a quick Google search shows the VA could have easily obtained at least some of the missing information. In 2010, the California Department of Public Health added the ability to analyze the prevalence of veteran suicide to an interactive online database of death certificates.

That year, the health department reported that 705 California veterans took their own lives.

Today’s hearing came at a time of increased attention on the government’s treatment of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

On Monday, a story in Esquire revealed that the former Navy SEAL who says he killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was unemployed, without a pension and had not accessed VA health care since being discharged from active duty. In the story, written in cooperation with the Center for Investigative Reporting, he said he had related suicidal thoughts and excessive drinking to a military psychiatrist during a mandatory psychiatric evaluation.

“He told me this was normal for SEALs after combat deployment,” the unidentified shooter told author Phil Bronstein, CIR’s executive chairman. “He told me I should just drink less and not hurt anybody.”

Later in the day, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, appeared on CNN to discuss the SEAL’s situation. He said there is a moral obligation to care for the nation’s veterans.

“What he has done is put a spotlight on a very serious problem,” said Sanders, who met with the SEAL on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

During his appearance on CNN, Sanders said the VA is “working very aggressively” to institute measures, including a paperless claim system, to help ease the backlog of claims awaiting processing.

He acknowledged that “there are many veterans out there who don’t know what they are entitled to.” Nationally, nearly half of all returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have failed to access VA health care, according to the agency’s own data.

During today’s House hearing, some committee members, mostly Republicans, suggested that the VA might not be fully aware of the extent of mental health problems among the country’s veteran population. They also argued that some may be choosing not to seek help from the VA, but instead seek treatment with state and local agencies or private companies.

“Could they be going somewhere else other than your crisis line?” Miller asked.

“We don’t think so,” Petzel replied, although he did not elaborate.

Veterans advocates called Petzel’s response absurd. In an interview, Shad Meshad, a former Vietnam combat medic and the head of the Los Angeles-based National Veterans Foundation, said he was not surprised that bin Laden’s killer had not sought care from the agency.

“Veterans stay away because it’s an antiquated system,” Meshad said, adding that the VA’s elaborate bureaucracy and preference for psychotropic medicine over counseling discourage many veterans from seeking help.

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Bobby Caina Calvan

Bobby Caina Calvan is the collaborations editor for Reveal. He was most recently director of operations for The Fund for Investigative Journalism, a Washington-based nonprofit that awards grants to freelance and independent investigative journalists. He thrives on watchdog journalism. He's worked in some of the country's best newsrooms, including The Associated Press, The Boston Globe, The Sacramento Bee and the Detroit Free Press. He's covered the war in Iraq, the national debate over health care, the 2012 presidential race and other high-profile elections.

While Calvan has worked in some of the country's biggest news outlets, his roots are firmly in local news. His career transcends platforms, and he has produced stories for print, digital, radio and television. He spent a year on a journalism diversity initiative in Nebraska called The Heartland Project, where he spearheaded collaborations with newsrooms across the state to enhance coverage of communities of color and LGBT issues. Inclusive journalism is in his DNA, and so is his strong advocacy for mentoring the next generation of journalists.

Calvan grew up on a dairy farm at the foot of the Ko'olau Mountains in Waimanalo, Hawaii – which might explain why he spent his first year of college at New York University and followed his sense of adventure into a career in journalism. He completed his college career at the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in legal studies. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Aaron Glantz was a senior reporter at Reveal. He is the author of "Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream." Glantz produces journalism with impact. His work has sparked more than a dozen congressional hearings, numerous laws and criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Pentagon and Federal Trade Commission. A two-time Peabody Award winner, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, multiple Emmy Award nominee and former John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, Glantz has had his work has appear in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America and PBS NewsHour. His previous books include "The War Comes Home" and "How America Lost Iraq."