VA Is Struggling to Hire Enough Mental Health Clinicians by Year’s End

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON—VA is falling short on its goals to hire more mental health professionals by the end of this year, VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, told legislators at a recent Senate hearing on suicide prevention.

“We have to figure out a way to recruit more mental health professionals and, frankly, not just for the VA but for the country at large to be able to train more. … We are not making the progress that I need to make in recruiting them,” Shulkin said. He added that VA wants to hire 1,000 new mental health professionals by the end of 2017 but is having trouble recruiting them.

“We are not succeeding at that 1,000 net new professionals,” he told the senators.

On Wednesday, September 27, 2017, VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD., and Dr. David Carroll, Executive Director, VA’s Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the department’s suicide prevention programs. Testimony followed the signing of a Suicide Prevention Declaration by Secretary Shulkin and leading members of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. (VA photo by Robert Turtil)

“Doctor, what do we need to do?” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) asked. Shulkin responded that a recently passed law allowing VA to speed up the hiring process for medical center and network directors should be expanded to other critical healthcare professionals, including those in mental health.

That law, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017, is currently limited to medical center and network directors.

“I want that authority for all of our critical health professionals. I would urge us to work together on that. It is just too hard getting people hired into the VA,” he told lawmakers.

In addition, Shulkin advised that VA needs “the tools that the private sector has to be able to recruit the very best health professions.” Yet, he said his retention and recruitment dollars were cut in half in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act of 2016.

“That was short-sighted, quite frankly. … If we’re serious about tackling this, don’t tie one of my hands behind my back,” Shulkin emphasized.

VA needs the flexibility to expand training, he said, adding, ‘These are all important strategies, particularly the training one.’”

Lawmakers agreed that training is key.

“If you’re going to make [VA] an attractive place for professionals to come to, then you better have professional development and a retention program similar to the private sector. … I saw the number that the VA was spending on a per-employee basis, and it was pennies on the dollar compared to what I would have spent as a partner at Pricewaterhouse,” pointed out Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).

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