VA Seeks Increased Mental-Health Staff to Respond to Growing Needs Among Veterans

By Stephen Spotswood

WASHINGTON —VA’s announcement that 1,900 mental-health staff will be added to its roster is more reactive than proactive, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told legislators at a recent hearing.  

“A certain number of folks walk in the door, and we try to extrapolate that into the future,” Shinseki explained to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “But we’re really looking at four years into the future. And what this means is that we are essentially in a reactive cycle. What walks into the door becomes the basis for understanding what we need in the future. When we have spikes in the [trend], then we have these occasional needs to address. ”

One contributor to the urgent need is the 2010 simplification of rules for veterans submitting PTSD-related benefit claims, he added.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testified recently before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“The claims have been submitted, and we’re beginning to see a growth in PTSD mental-health requirements,” Shinseki said.The announcement that the agency hopes to hire 1,600 mental-health clinicians and 300 support staff — for a total VA mental-health staff of 22,490 — comes only weeks after a VA Inspector General report found VA’s self-evaluation of its mental-health appointment scheduling significantly flawed.

VA leaders contend the two are unrelated and that the addition of staff is not a reaction to the IG report but to increased needs.

However, IG investigators note that, until VA drastically changes how it tracks mental healthcare being provided to its veterans, it will have no real idea of what percentage of its patient population is being treated in a timely manner.

Recruiting Challenges

Quickly hiring so many people is easier said than done. VA historically has had difficulty recruiting mental-healthcare professionals, especially those with extensive training, such as psychiatrists, and those willing to work in rural and remote areas.

According to VA officials, the agency will be employing a fourfold strategy to recruit the 1,9000 employees:

  • a robust marketing and advertising campaign;
  • national recruiters tasked with filling vacancies at specific medical centers and Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs);
  • strong involvement by VA leadership; and
  • recruiting from VA’s active pipeline of trainees and residents.

The latter method is expected to make up the majority of the new staff hired, said VA Undersecretary of Health Robert Petzel, MD. “We’re the largest trainer of mental-health professionals in the country. And this group of trainees is the primary place that we’re probably going to be recruiting.”

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