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.
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.
Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said hiring the new staffers would be a boost for veterans’ care, but the group remains concerned about where the new specialists will be assigned and “how they are going to recruit so many mental health practitioners when there is a nation-wide shortage.”
“The success of the decision remains to be seen,” he said.
Jacob Gadd, deputy director of the American Legion’s Veteran Affairs and Rehabilitation Division, said official there are hopeful the new posts — and the existing vacancies — can be filled quickly. “There’s a great need for this mental health staff,” he said.
Officials said recruitment for the new posts will begin this month, and they will pay for the effort by shifting funds from other budget accounts.
House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said he’ll ask the VA for a revised budget detailing whether past funds assigned for mental health priorities were properly used, or if they were diverted to other areas.
He called the new hires a step forward, but also called for better intervention training for all VA employees, to recognize signs of post-traumatic stress and suicidal thoughts.
“There are a surge of veterans coming home, and VA must be prepared to meet their needs,” he said. “Right now, too many veterans fall through the cracks.”
Department officials said as the 1,900 new employees are added, they will continue to assess overall staffing levels and could hire more specialists in the future.