At a time when the VA Montana Health Care System is struggling to recruit psychiatrists to treat veterans with mental health problems, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has announced an immediate, nearly 10 percent increase in mental health staffing across the country.
VA Montana has not yet been told how many new staff members it will receive or the specific type of mental health professionals it will receive, but VA officials are heralding the notification.
Some 1,600 mental health clinicians, including nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, as well as nearly 300 support staffers, will be added to the existing mental health workforce of 20,590. The expanded mental-health services will include professionals from two additional health care fields: marriage and family therapists and licensed professional mental health counselors.
The infusion of mental health professionals coincides with the scores of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The VA currently treats 1.3 million veterans for mental health problems, including an estimated 400,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since 2007, VA has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of veterans receiving mental health services. There are 10,000 new patients with PTSD checking in at hospitals every three months, according to the VA.
The agency is allocating money from the current budget to all 21 Veterans Integrated Service Networks, including the Rocky Mountain Network, which includes Montana, to begin recruitment immediately.
“VA recognized an increase in mental health professionals was needed as the number of veterans increases,” said Anita S. Urdiales, executive assistant to Ralph T. Gigliotti, director of VA Rocky Mountain Network 19, which includes facilities in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. “As VA strives to provide the best care possible, we will continuously reassess mental health staffing needs to make sure veterans are getting access to the care they need.”
The primary goal of adding staff is to reduce the time veterans must wait before being seen for mental health issues. On Monday, the Office of Inspector General criticized VA officials for embellishing how quickly veterans were able to be seen for mental health issues.
The investigation found that veterans on average must wait nearly two months — far longer than the VA has claimed.
At VA facilities in the Rocky Mountain Region, patients can wait up to four or five weeks to begin therapy.
Veterans Health Administration policy requires that all first-time patients requesting mental health services receive an initial evaluation within 24 hours, and a comprehensive diagnostic appointment within two weeks. VHA officials had said that 95 percent of its new patients were seen in that time frame.
U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, both Democrats, said getting more trained staffers to help care for veterans is a good first step, but it falls far short of the finish line.
“The next step is to send them where they are needed, and that means Montana,” Baucus said. “Montana has more veterans per capita than almost any other state in the country. But we also have the highest vacancy rate for VA psychiatrists, and that just doesn’t add up.”
Tester, Montana’s only member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has consistently pressed the VA leadership to hire more psychiatrists in VA facilities throughout Montana, particularly at the new mental health wing at Fort Harrison.
“Too many Montana veterans suffer from injuries both seen and unseen,” Tester said.