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The Veterans Affairs Department is 240 people shy of meeting a goal to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals by June 30, VA officials said Tuesday.
A year after announcing plans to hire that number of behavioral health specialists to address staff shortages, VA has hired 1,360 providers. It also has filled 2,036 vacancies that existed when the hiring initiative was announced, according to a VA press release.
“We have made strong progress to expand veterans access to quality mental health services. ... Our ongoing, joint efforts reflect our commitment to the health and well-being of the men and women who have served the nation,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a prepared statement.
VA announced its hiring efforts in April 2012 amid pressure from Congress to improve mental health services for veterans and provide timely treatment. A VA inspector general investigation found that patients faced inordinate delays getting initial mental health appointments and follow up care, with an average wait time of 50 days to get care.
VA agreed to broaden its mental health workforce and launched several other programs to address the need, including increasing the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line by 50 percent and establishing pilot projects in seven states to allow veterans to get care from private-sector mental health specialists in their communities.
VA’s announcement Tuesday coincided with introduction of a bill by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman, that would require VA to contract with civilian mental health agencies and providers to treat veterans.
Miller said VA is “failing the veterans most in need of their services,” and his legislation would bring together public- and private-sector specialists to ensure veterans get needed treatment.
“It would ensure that the care provided to veteran patients in need of mental health services is timely, convenient, and coordinated from the initial point of contact throughout the recovery process,” Miller said.
Several veterans service organizations, including Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Veterans of Foreign Wars, have come out against Miller’s proposal, the “Veterans Integrated Mental Health Care Act.”
“VA is currently working on multiple initiatives to improve care coordination with private providers and increase timely access to mental health services. ... PVA believes that the current VA initiatives should be further developed before additional resources are put into another program for non-VA care coordination,” said Alethea Predeoux, PVA’s associate director for health legislation.
During a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee panel hearing on Tuesday, Dr. Robert Jesse, VA’s principal deputy undersecretary for health, declined to comment on Miller’s proposed bill, saying the department had not had enough time to review the legislation.