The Veterans Affairs Department will increase its mental health workforce by about 7% to treat the growing number veterans with psychiatric disorders, federal officials announced Thursday. The increase follows growing alarm in Congress about the impact on veterans' health of lengthening wait times for such care.
The department will add about 1,600 nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, as well as about 300 support staff, to its 20,590-member mental health staff. The additional staff stem, in part, from the department's ongoing review of its mental health operations, which has indicated some VA facilities require more mental health staff to serve the growing needs of veterans, according to a department news release
“Improving access to mental health services will help support the current and future Veterans who depend on VA for these vital services,” Dr. Robert Petzel, under secretary for health for the VA, said in the news release.
The department provided specialty mental health services to 1.3 million veterans in 2011, which was a 35% increase from 2007.
However, the department has faced a growing chorus of congressional criticism in recent years for not keeping up with the growing demand for mental healthcare from veterans. For instance, Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the leaders of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, asked the department's inspector general to launch an audit of mental healthcare wait times at the VA in December. The audit request followed a series of congressional hearings focused on the impacts of extended wait times and whether VA facilities are accurately reporting mental healthcare accessibility.
Initial mental healthcare appointments are required to occur within 14 days and a survey requested by Murray found sharply longer wait times
than the VA reported.
In an e-mailed statement Thursday, Murray said the VA's announcement was welcome news.
“I am pleased that the VA has taken this desperately needed step toward providing timely access to mental healthcare,” Murray said. “Too often we have seen staff vacancies, scheduling delays and red tape leave those veterans who have been brave enough to seek help in the first place left with nowhere to turn.”
Burr called the additional staff a step in the right direction but also urged the VA to develop ways for veterans to receive mental healthcare from providers outside the VA, including charitable organizations.