San Antonio VA moves away from in-person mental health appointments for vets amid COVID-19 crisis

Vets told to transition to telemental health appointments

Officials with the South Texas VA confirmed Friday that it has moved away from face-to-face mental health appointments amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic.

SAN ANTONIO – Officials with the South Texas VA confirmed Friday that it has moved away from face-to-face mental health appointments amid the surging COVID-19 pandemic.

Veterans who would typically have appointments at facilities such as the Audie L. Murphy VA Medical Center or Frank M. Tejeda VA Outpatient Clinic have instead been instructed to take part in telemental health appointments, a method some veterans said was similar to taking part in a FaceTime call.

“If somebody’s really in crisis, they need to speak to somebody in person, especially if they are suffering from severe PTSD,” said one San Antonio veteran who has taken part in telemental health appointments in the past.

He asked that we not reveal his identity.

A source within the South Texas VA told the KSAT 12 Defenders the telemental method worked for only two of the six appointments he was scheduled to host during a work day earlier this week.

Dr. Nicole Braida, Associate Chief of Staff of Mental Health for the South Texas Veterans Health Care System provided the following written statement:

The South Texas Veterans Health Care System Mental health Service continues to accept mental health referrals. COVID19 has only changed the delivery of these services. All mental health staff are actively reaching out to our veterans and converting face-to-face appointments to telemental health appointments. Many providers are using this technology from their home to keep the staff and veterans safe by enabling social distancing. Currently all staff are trained to provide this care to our patients. If the patient has a mobile phone or tablet they can go to and download the VA Video Connect App and do a test to ensure the App works on their device. This will enable the veteran to see their provider through this crisis. If the Veteran does not have access to this technology then the visit will be converted to a phone visit. We also recommend patients do not come to outpatient clinics for appointments to continue social distancing guidelines and keep all veterans and providers safe from the spread of this virus. We encourage veterans to also use Secure Messaging to reach their providers and assist with other needs such as Medication Refills or questions. Any veteran in crisis is encouraged to call the Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255, press 1 or go to the closest emergency room for assessment if suicidal.

South Texas VA officials did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2019 national veteran suicide prevention annual report, the number of veteran suicides in the United States exceeded 6,000 each year from 2008 to 2017.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy-nominated photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.