VA to add about 1,900 to mental health staff

The Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday it was increasing its staff of mental health workers by roughly 1,900, part of an effort to anticipate medical needs of veterans returning home from war and to deal with a shortage of specialists.

The department plans to add about 1,600 clinicians, including psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses, social workers and professional counselors, and about 300 support staff to an existing mental health staff of roughly 20,590.

"As the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning veterans," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement. "History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended. As more veterans return home, we must ensure that all veterans have access to quality mental health care."

The new hires follow a months-long VA review that determined shortages in mental health staff nationwide, leading veterans in some areas to wait longer than they should for treatment, VA Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel said in an interview.

"We feel as if we need to add additional personnel," he said.

Since 2007, the VA has experienced a 35 percent increase in the number of veterans receiving mental health services, but the department says it's made strides in part by developing a more extensive suicide prevention program and by increasing the number of counseling centers.

The department said recruitment for the new positions will begin immediately, and Petzel said the VA expects to draw from the military, the private sector and from schools.

The mental well-being of U.S. veterans has been a critical area of concern in recent years, especially amid reports of high suicide rates and surveys that raise questions about how long those seeking care are forced to wait for treatment. A VA survey released last fall, for instance, reported that nearly 40 percent of the 272 mental health providers surveyed said they could not schedule a new patient for an appointment within the VA-mandated two weeks, and 70 percent said they lacked adequate space and staff.

Petzel said those problems were largely driven by vacancies and a shortage of staff, problems the new additions are expected to address.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the announcement was a good start, but that the VA also needs to decrease wait times for veterans seeking care and to strengthen training of employees who encounter veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Right now, too many veterans fall through the cracks. We can avert tragedy with the proper outreach and care," Miller said in a statement.

Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, has scheduled a hearing on the topic for next week. She noted that the VA's announcement comes days before the release of an inspector general's report on the subject, though Petzel said the review had been underway for months and was not timed to the report. Murray said the new hires were "desperately needed" at a time when "staff vacancies, scheduling delays and red tape" are leaving veterans without the help they need.