Surge of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Needing Psychiatric Care Outpacing VA Efforts to Hire, Retain Providers

VA Plans to Hire 1,900 Additional Mental Health Staffers

Agency faces toughest HR challenge at rural facilities where unfilled positions exceed 20 percent

by Leo Shane lll

Stars and Stripes, April 19, 2012

WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to hire 1,900 new mental health staffers to deal with gaps in existing psychiatric care and to prepare the agency for next wave of veterans returning home from war.

Veterans groups hailed the news as a much-needed move to cut down on wait times for mental health care. But they also questioned whether filling the positions can be done, given the nationwide shortage of those specialists and the high vacancy rates which already exist throughout the department.

Army medics work on a badly wounded Afghan during Operation Hammer. Many veterans coming home from war duty need mental health care. More than 1.3 million veterans sought mental health treatment at VA facilities in 2011. VA announced it will hire 1,900 additional mental health care staff to try and keep pace with the demand. (DoD)

Last year, department specialists provided mental health services to 1.3 million veterans. Since 2007, the VA has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of patients receiving mental health care.

It currently employs nearly 20,600 mental health staffers. The 1,900 new positions will include 1,600 clinicians — nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers — and another 300 support staff.

In a statement, VA secretary Eric Shinseki said that the move is designed to anticipate the needs of returning veterans.

“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,” he said. “As more veterans return home, we must ensure that all veterans have access to quality mental health care.”

Next week, in response to congressional requests, the VA inspector general’s office is expected to release findings detailing longer-than-promised wait times for that mental health care.

In addition, a USA Today report earlier this month found that many psychiatrist posts within the department’s hospitals are currently unfilled, with vacancy rates above 20 percent in many rural areas.

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