VA Montana hires 7 new mental health professionals

Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

Three psychologists, two social workers and two medical support assistants have been hired in the VA Montana Health Care System as part of a nationwide effort to increase access to mental health services in VA hospitals and clinics.

The seven new hires, located in Billings, Missoula, Kalispell, Havre and Fort Harrison, bring to 99 the number of full-time mental health care professionals at VA Montana.

The hires fill a critical need for additional staffing in key areas across the state, said Christine Gregory, director of the VA Montana Health Care System. Having more professionals has improved access to behavioral health services considerably, Gregory told The Billings Gazette.

The new hires are part of the initiative President Barack Obama outlined in August 2012 to improve and address mental-health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, in the veteran population.

Gregory is proud of the staff’s hard work to bring the new staff members on board.

“We are not slowing our efforts however, and will continue to actively recruit for any vacant mental health positions for the future so veterans will get the care they need,” she said. “VA Montana is poised to provide comprehensive behavioral health services and would like to help end the Veteran homeless problem throughout Montana.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, Montana’s only member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, has long championed the need for more mental health professionals at VA Montana. He was at the forefront of efforts to open the acute, inpatient psychiatric wing at the VA hospital.

“Hiring more mental health professionals to support veterans is a good first step, but we can always do more to improve access to quality health care, especially in rural states like Montana,” Tester told The Gazette. “I will keep working with the VA to make sure they have enough staff so Montana veterans get the care and benefits they earned.”

As of May 31, 2013, the VA has hired a total of 1,607 mental health clinical providers through the nation to meet the goal of 1,600 new mental health professionals outlined in the president’s Executive Order. Additionally, VA has hired 2,005 mental health clinical providers to fill existing vacancies.

The infusion of mental health professionals coincides with the thousands of men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The VA treats about 1.3 million veterans for mental health problems, including an estimated 400,000 who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The primary goal of adding staff is to reduce the time veterans must wait before being seen for mental health issues. The Office of Inspector last year discovered that veterans on average must wait nearly two months to see a mental health professional. At VA facilities in the Rocky Mountain Region, patients can wait up to five weeks to begin therapy.

In fiscal year 2012, more than 1.3 million veterans received specialized mental health care from VA. This number has risen each year from 927,052 in fiscal year 2006. In addition to hiring more mental health professionals, VA is expanding the use of technology to serve veterans in rural or underserved areas. The VA expects to increase the number of veterans receiving care from tele-mental health services in fiscal year 2013, and has increased the number of Vet Centers, which provide readjustment counseling and referral services from 233 in 2008 to 300 in 2012.