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VA to hire 1,900 mental-health workers

Under pressure to reduce the long waits that many veterans face for mental health care, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that it will hire 1,900 mental health workers, an increase of more than 9 percent.

The new positions include 1,600 clinicians, among them nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, as well as nearly 300 support staff.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), called the new positions “desperately needed” given the high suicide rates among veterans and the influx of service members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan seeking mental health care.

“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,” said Murray, who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health conditions often must wait weeks or months for care, delaying treatment that may prevent some from taking their own lives, according to testimony at congressional hearings last year.

“These are wounds that cannot wait,” Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in a statement.

The announcement comes in advance of the release next week of a VA inspector general’s report, requested by Murray, examining the long wait times.

Last year, the VA provided mental health services to 1.3 million veterans, an increase of 35 percent from 2007. The department said it will use funds from the current budget to begin recruitment for the new positions immediately.

“As the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning veterans,” Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement announcing the increase.

Some VA facilities have vacancy rates as high as 23 percent for mental health practitioners, according to Miller’s office. A survey of VA mental health workers last year found that more than 70 percent of respondents believed they lacked the staff and space to meet the needs of veterans seeking care.

The VA is working to fill the gaps at facilities that need more mental health staff, according to the department.

While he described the VA action as “a start,” Miller said the department needs to do much more to “address gaps in services and ensure veterans undergoing treatment are not lost in the system.”

Better training is needed for VA workers who are the first point of contact for veterans suffering from PTSD in order to better identify those who are at risk of suicide, Miller added.

Miller wants the VA to submit detailed information accounting for how it is spending money allocated for mental health care.

The VA also has a growing backlog of disability claims. The number of pending claims filed by veterans with the VA stood at 903,000 this week, up 50,000 from January and an increase of about a half-million from three years ago.

The rising numbers are driven by claims from veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with complex injuries as well as those from Vietnam veterans, who now face fewer barriers to filing Agent Orange-related claims as a result of a recent policy change.

“The tidal wave of claims coming in on VA is putting unprecedented demand on VA,” Paul Sullivan, representing the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, said Wednesday at a House veterans committee hearing.

“When VA focuses attention on expediting new claims, VA exacerbates the already bad situation by increasing the error rate, leading to even more appeals and even longer delays,” Sullivan added.

At the hearing, Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) expressed concern that the VA has a culture that “overemphasizes quantity over quality.”

But Thomas J. Murphy, director of compensation services for the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, testified that the VBA is implementing a series of training, processing and technological improvements aimed to meet the department’s goal of processing all claims within 125 days with 98 percent accuracy by 2015. The changes include a move from a paper-based system to electronic processing.

“We are confident that we are on the right path to deliver more timely and accurate benefits decisions to our nation’s veterans,” Murphy said.

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