Some 20,000 US troops who suffer from alcohol or drug-related problems are sent to the military’s substance-abuse program for screening each year.
An investigation by USA TODAY finds thousands of these soldiers seeking treatment at Army substance-abuse clinics are being turned away, while over two dozen have committed suicide shortly after they received poor care..
That needs to be changed, said Wanda Kuehr, former director of clinical services.
Kuehr is talking about the shift in outpatient treatment from medical to non-medical leadership in 2010, which has led to poor care, departure of many veteran personnel and hiring unqualified clinic directors and counselor, a senior Army clinical staff member has told USA TODAY.
"This is the crux of the whole thing," said Kuehr. Non-medical managers want to "get the reports in on time and fill the slots. They think that makes a good program. Our goal is to give treatment to soldiers. And (the bosses) see that as inconsequential… What's happening to soldiers matters and the Army can't just keep pushing things under the rug."
While the Army denies that treatment efforts have declined, five current staff member reiterate Kuehr’s claims, pointing to reports filed by Army clinic reviewers who visit each base, pore through medical files and talk with counselors, showing chronic problems with poor diagnosis and treatment.
In 2012, Army managers hired an unlicensed counselor at Fort Sill in Oklahoma to see patients. The counselor gave a “good” rating to a soldier who hanged himself two hours later, cites an internal Army report.
An Institute of Medicine panel of scientific experts on substance abuse warned of a military public health crisis in drug and alcohol abuse.
Col. Anthony Cox, who was chosen to address complaints and defend the program, briefed a senior leader, citing “erosion of quality care” and “increased risk of mission failure,” according to emails obtained by USA TODAY.
However, he said the newspaper’s findings were false.
Enrollment in the program has declined from 48% in 2009 to 36% in 2014.
The Army acknowledged “only a few problems with the clinics,” based on inspections done by the Joint Commission every three years.
Dozens of psychologists and social workers who served as counselors or clinical directors at many Army bases began resigning, retiring, shifting to other positions or taking new jobs with the surgeon general or the Department of Veterans Affairs since the change in commands.
Fifty-eight clinical directors left, nearly three dozen of whom had faced conflicts with management.