The VA Mental Healthcare System is Failing Me...and My Baby
Some background: I am a 100% service connected disabled veteran. I have recieved my mental health care and treatment through the VA healthcare system since July 2011, am able to do so because I am an OEF/OIF and service connected veteran. My complaints with the VA healthcare system have been fairly minimal, thanks to the outstanding psychiatrist I had in Philadelphia before we moved; but since moving to Texas, particuarly Austin, I've encountered numerous obstacles in receiving quality care. What happened today is just the latest to come my way.
The pregnancy test flashed a positive sign on a Wednesday.
Two days later, a Friday, I was sitting in front of the nurse practitioner at the Cedar Park VA Outpatient Clinic, waiting patiently for the lab to confirm what EPT had already told me. When the confirmation came, there was a congratulations, a D.O.D standard “Guide to Pregnancy” book placed in my lap, and instructions from my primary care doc to stop all of my medications immediately. No Clonazepam, no Fluoxetine (Prozac) and no Lamictal. I left the clinic with these words and a promise from the nurse practitioner: “I’m going to see Dr. Bryant once she’s done with her current patient and find out what she recommends, ok? She’ll be able to give you the proper guidance on what to do about your medications, being that she’s your psychiatrist. I’ll call you as soon as I speak with her.”
Friday afternoon came and went. No phone call.
Sunday afternoon came and I had already started to notice my mood shifting and withdrawals setting in.
Monday morning: I called and was put on hold. Left a voicemail. Called two hours later, left yet another voicemail with the nurse for the my primary care doc. Called back and tried to leave a voicemail for my psychiatrist and was unable to-the phone just rang without an answer. “She’s in the office, ma’am, how about I take the message for you?” said the vet volunteer working the front desk. Ok. Left the message. Checked my phone obsessively for the rest of the day-nothing.
Tuesday morning: Called back-left more messages. Nothing.
I spent the rest of that week freaking out from med withdrawal and anxiety over what to do. Fed up with the lack of response on the VA front, Bertski and I decided that finding outside, non-VA care was the way to go, even if we had to pay out-of-pocket until I was verified as a dependent under his insurance at work. A recommendation from a friend led me to Austin Area OBGYN and my new OB. I made an appointment, and even though it was weeks away, I was able to speak to a nurse about my medications. Within an hour I had more informed guidance: “Dr. S says you can continue to take the Prozac, but not the Clonazepam. He says that while Lamictal is relatively safe to take during pregnancy, he would prefer you to try to stay off of it until the end of your first trimester-the incident of a birth defect like cleft palate forming with Lamictal is very, very low, but he always advises staying off of it the first 12 weeks just to be even more cautious. HOWEVER if you feel yourself start to struggle and you feel you need to start taking it sooner, just let us know, and we can work with that, ok? Come in for lab work tomorrow so we can see how far along you are, ok, honey?”
I don’t think I’ve ever breathed a larger sigh of relief than I did when I hung up the phone with her. Later that day, when I checked my mailbox, there was a “CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR PREGNANCY!” package from the Women’s VA Health Clinic in Temple. (Note: all of the VA outpatient clinics & hospitals in Central TX are all spread out-there’s one in Austin, Cedar Park, Temple, Waco and Bryan College Station.) There was nothing from my primary care doc or psych in Cedar Park, and I still had not received a phone call returning my messages as promised 7 days prior. I threw the package in the trash, completely disgusted.
That next Monday it came-an appointment card detailing from the clinic in Cedar Park telling me I had an upcoming appointment with my psych. I laughed-it wasn’t the first time this had happened-her just scheduling an appointment instead of actually returning my messages, but I thought being pregnant would have warranted her actually making the effort to call me. (What’s faster-a phone call or the mail? The mail, OBVIOUSLY!)
I went into that appointment on March 28th ready to give her the benefit of the doubt. I left vowing to no longer allow her to be in charge of my care.
Um…why didn’t you call me back? I’ve been waiting to find out what to do.
“I did call you-I didn’t get an answer.”
Um…no you didn’t-I don’t have any voicemail from you and I’ve watched my phone like a hawk waiting to hear from you.
“Well, I called, if you didn’t get it, that’s not my problem. Anyway, in my opinion, someone in your condition getting pregnant is just irresponsible.”
“I’m sorry, but you shouldn’t be on any medication-you need to give your baby the best & healthiest start possible. Taking medication in my opinion is causing your baby harm.”
What if I have an episode during the pregnancy? What about postpartum psychosis? My OB said Lamictal and Prozac are safe!
“Well, I don’t agree with that. All of the research says otherwise…these are things you should have considered before getting pregnant.”
WHAT research? Everything I’ve read and what Dr. S has told me is the complete opposite of what you’re saying. The incidence of the birth defects associated with these two meds is very low, I’ve read this myself…there are women with epilepsy who take Lamictal at much higher doses-
“So are you just going to go with what he’s saying? Fine. Do you need psychotherapy? Individual therapy isn’t available through the VA in this area, but I can see if the social worker here at this clinic is available-I doubt it though-she doesn’t do therapy.”
I left that office shaking from the anger surging within me. That was it. My husband and I agreed that day to no longer have anything to do with her-I’d try to find a private psychiatrist or have my care transferred to a new one through the VA clinic in Austin. Her misinformation and lack of knowledge just wasn’t acceptable, and besides-it wasn’t the first time I’d had problems with her lack of communication and dismissive attitude. It’s what played a significant role in my being hospitalized back in October. Fed up with her neglect and lack of professionalism? Yeah, understatement if there ever was one.
I’ve spent the weeks since then struggling to manage my symptoms while dealing with the yuck of the first trimester, my youngest's autism & SPD diagnosis and entrance into therapy, searching for a therapist who accepts our insurance (or has an affordable self-pay option), and pushing myself to hold on until the 12 week mark, which is tomorrow. I’ve also been working with the women’s health outreach specialist to get a new psych through the VA, at the Austin clinic. They’re so backed up, she put in the consult 6 weeks ago, and it’s still pending. (She was, however able to secure the authorization necessary to have the VA cover my prenatal care and delivery so I don’t have to pay out-of-pocket or use my husband's insurance which only covers up to a certain amount-so at least that’s a win.)
I called the VA pharmacy in Waco to have my Lamictal and Prozac refilled today, (since I only have a 10 day supply left of both,) ONLY to find out that they’ve been discontinued thanks to Dr. B. DISCONTINUED. She discontinued my medications and did so without informing me. No correspondence, no phone call, no explanation, NOTHING.
Needless to say I’m enraged. Even more so than I was before because instead of just jeopardizing MY health, she’s now jeopardizing that of the baby’s and that has me wanting to FIGHT. Fight for my right to better treatment, and fight because, well, WHO THE FUCK IS SHE TO DO THIS TO A PATIENT?!
I’ve spent the morning making phone calls to file complaints and to even try to get ahold of her and the director of the clinic to no avail. She’s not answering her phone (of course) and the director is on vacation until May 17th. The women’s health specialist is aware of what’s going on and assured me she’s going to do something to “fix” things, but honestly, I don’t even TRUST anything VA related anymore.
I’m a 100% service connected disabled veteran. I’m pregnant. I have a mood disorder. I shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of treatment. I shouldn’t be scouring Austin looking for a therapist because the VA here doesn’t offer individualized therapy for women in my situation. (Or women, period-they just have general support groups, I’ve been told.) I also know that I can’t be the only woman vet in the Central TX region who has had to deal with this pathetic system and it’s inadequacies.
But outside of reporting her, what else can I do? I don’t just want her reported, I WANT HER AND OTHER VA DOCTORS HERE INFORMED. Informed on medications and treatment for women with mood disorders during pregnancy. Trained. Educated. I want better for my fellow women vets. Since moving here I have encountered nothing but poor treatment and bureaucracy. The Central TX VA Healthcare System has done nothing but inhibit my ability to have solid mental health care.
What can I do y’all? How do I fight this so that they stop failing myself and others?
Update: I spoke with the women’s health outreach specialist, and she informed me that my meds were discontinued because the VA doesn’t want to assume any liability if something happens to the baby as a result of my being on psychiatric medications. Per the Chief Medical Director of the Women’s Health Clinic in Temple, TX: “The VA can’t assume responsibility for anything that may happen as a result of her staying on these medications during her pregnancy. Our psychiatrists are not experts in this area whereas a private obstetrician is. If he says these medications are safe for her to take during her pregnancy and he will write her a prescription for them, then she can bring that prescription to the VA pharmacy in Austin and we can fill them that way. If something were to happen, then this private OB is the one responsible, not the VA. Unfortunately this is what we have to do in situations such as this.”
So. There you have it. The VA has practically rid themselves of me during my pregnancy because due to my having a psychiatric condition I'm suddenly a liability concern.
Question: WHY aren’t VA psychiatrists educated in reproductive psychiatry when women veterans comprise at least 10% of the veteran population and have children and are suffering from mental health issues like PTSD, Military Sexual Trauma, Depression, Anxiety, and others as a result of combat and service?