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The Veterans Affairs Department announced Thursday that it plans to hire 1,600 nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to bolster its staff of mental health providers.
As part of an "ongoing review of VA's mental health operations," officials said they plan to launch an immediate recruiting and hiring effort in its 21 service networks.
"History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended. As more veterans return home, we must ensure that all veterans have access to quality mental health care," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said.
VA has come under fire from advocacy groups and members of Congress for its shortcomings in accommodating veterans' behavioral health care needs.
Reports of veterans having problems getting appointments or receiving adequate long-term care have vexed lawmakers responsible for overseeing VA.
"With suicide rates that continue to be high and an influx of new veterans into the system, these barriers to mental health care are completely unacceptable," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee chairwoman, said Thursday.
According to Murray, VA announced the hiring initiative in advance of the release of a VA Inspector General's report on appointment waiting times, expected before next Wednesday.
"I am pleased that VA has taken this desperately needed step toward providing timely access to mental health care," she said.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said more needs to be done to fill vacancies at VA medical centers nationwide. In some areas, he said, the vacancy rates for mental health practitioners are as high as 23 percent.
"There is a surge of veterans coming home, and VA must be prepared to meet their needs. If they are unable to do so, it is imperative that VA find community-based providers to match the right treatment for each veteran. Right now, too many veterans fall through the cracks," Miller said.
VA currently employs 20,590 mental health specialists and clerical staff. The new hires, plus 300 planned clerical support staff, would represent a 9 percent increase in mental health workers at VA.
The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee will hold a hearing April 25 on barriers for veterans in obtaining mental health care.