5 mental health clinicians to be hired in Montana for veterans' care

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

Five mental health clinicians and two support personnel will be hired for VA Montana Health Care System as part of a nationwide effort to bolster mental health services in VA hospitals and clinics.

VA Montana employs 81 mental health clinicians and support staff members.

Veterans Administration Secretary Eric K. Shinseki announced in April that the department would add approximately 1,600 mental health clinicians as well as nearly 300 support staff members.

The VA has 20,696 mental health employees, including nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. The expanded mental health services include professionals from two additional fields: marriage and family therapists and licensed professional mental health counselors.

Though additional staffing is welcome news to VA Montana, it is not the in-patient psychiatrists the hospital has long worked to recruit.

“Every additional mental health provider is one step closer to fulfilling America’s promise to her veterans,” Steve Young, interim director at VA Montana, said. “These additional staff members will expand mental health care to Montana’s Veterans. We are anxious to get them on board and providing the care these men and women have earned and deserve.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, is continuing to work to bring psychiatrists to VA Montana. In the meantime, Tester said, the ability to hire clinicians and support personnel is a “long overdue step forward.”

“Too many Montana veterans still suffer from injuries seen and unseen,” Tester said. “I have worked hard to ensure the VA lives up to the promises we made to the men and women who served, and I will keep fighting for them.”

The infusion of mental health professionals coincides with the scores of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In announcing the nationwide hiring effort, Shinseki said, “As the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning veterans.”

Last year, the VA provided specialty mental health services to 1.3 million veterans. Since 2009, the VA has increased the mental health care budget by 39 percent. Since 2007, the VA has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of veterans receiving mental health services and a 41 percent increase in mental health staffing.

The VA treats 1.3 million veterans for mental health problems, including an estimated 400,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The VA is allocating money from the current budget to all 21 Veterans Integrated Service Networks, including the Rocky Mountain Network, which includes Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Utah.

The VA anticipates that the majority of mental health clinicians and support staff members will be hired locally within six months and the most difficult-to-fill positions will be taken care of by the end of the year. To speed the hiring, VA developed the Mental Health Hiring Initiative to improve marketing, recruitment, and hiring efforts.

The primary goal of adding staff members is to reduce the time veterans must wait before being seen for mental health issues. The Office of Inspector General earlier this year discovered 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 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.

“Mental health services must be closely aligned with veterans’ needs and fully integrated with health care facility operations,” said VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel. “Improving access to mental health services will help support the current and future Veterans who depend on VA for these vital services.”