July 1st, 2012

VA adding 1,900 mental health staff

Increasing demand for mental health services has the Department of Veterans Affairs looking to add 1,900 new positions to its mental health workforce as part of an ongoing review of its operations.

“We anticipate the bulk of the hiring to be done within six months,” says VA Director of Mental Health Operations Mary Schohn, Ph.D. “For some harder to fill positions we expect it will take longer than that, but we have a very aggressive hiring campaign going on.”

Plans call for hiring approximately 1,600 nurses, psychiatrists, social workers and psychologists and nearly 300 support staff positions, which will mean a 9.2 percent increase in the size of the VA’s existing 20,590 member mental health staff. Funding to cover about two months salary for the additional staff was reallocated for the hiring initiative from within the department’s current budget.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced the hiring initiative April 19. Four days later, the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General released a report stating nearly half of veterans seeking mental health care for the first time waited about 50 days to receive a full evaluation. That information was in stark contrast to the VA’s claim of a 95 percent success rate in providing first-time patients such an evaluation within 14 days.

Schohn says the VA was already in the process of reviewing its operations when the IG report came out and had recognized the need for additional mental health staff, which has increased 41 percent since 2007. The number of veterans seen in mental health services has increased 35 percent in that same period.

“We’re aware that that’s going to continue to increase even as the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan close,” Schohn adds.

Craig Coldwell, M.D., M.P.H., mental health service line director at VA New England Healthcare System, says the greatest number of New England vacancies will occur in Massachusetts which has the most facilities. There were already 100 vacant positions that needed to be filled as of last spring.

“(In Human Resources) they’re having daily huddles to really prioritize the mental health positions. It’s really across the full range and spectrum of disciplines,” Coldwell says.

VA has 1,400 medical facilities in urban and rural areas throughout 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. VA New England Medical Center and clinic locations include Northampton, Leeds, Bedford, Brockton, Jamaica Plain and West Roxbury, Mass., Providence, R.I., Manchester, N.H., White River Junction, Vt., West Haven and Newington, Conn., and Augusta, Maine,

VA has enhanced services by integrating mental health care into the primary care setting, increasing the number of Veterans Readjustment Counseling Centers and developing an extensive suicide prevention program. VA’s Veteran Crisis Line has received more than 600,000 calls resulting in more than 21,000 rescues of veterans in immediate crisis. Part of the staff increase is for marriage and family therapists and licensed professional mental health counselors.

By Janine Weisman

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