By James Dao
The Department of Veterans Affairs announced on Thursday that it plans to hire about 1,600 additional psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and other mental health clinicians in an effort to reduce long wait times for services at many veterans medical centers.
The hiring, which would be augmented by the addition of 300 clerical workers, would increase the department's mental health staff by nearly 10 percent at a time when the veterans health system is being overwhelmed not just by veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, but also by aging veterans from the Vietnam era.
"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," Eric K. Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, said in a statement. "As more veterans return home, we must ensure that all veterans have access to quality mental health care."
The announcement comes as the department is facing intensified criticism for delays in providing psychological services to veterans at some of its major medical centers.
The department's own inspector general is expected to release a report as soon as next week asserting that wait times for mental health services are significantly longer than the department has been willing to acknowledge.
Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat who is chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, has also scheduled hearings next week about the delays.
And last year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, based in San Francisco, issued a scathing ruling saying that the department had failed to provide adequate mental health services to veterans.
"No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligation," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the majority. The Obama administration has appealed the ruling.
The Veterans Affairs Department says that it has worked hard to keep pace with the tide of new veterans needing psychological care, increasing its mental health care budget by 39 percent since 2009 and hiring more than 3,500 mental health professionals.
The department says it has also established a policy to do mental health evaluations of all veterans not in crisis within 14 days, a goal it says it meets 95 percent of the time.
However, the inspector general's report is expected to question the validity of that claim.
One issue confronting the department has been finding enough mental health clinicians to fill job openings, particularly in rural areas. The director of veterans health care in Montana recently was reassigned, for instance, amid complaints that she had been unable to hire psychiatrists to staff a new psychiatric unit.
But department officials said they were confident that they would be able to find qualified mental health clinicians in most regions. Funds for the new jobs will be allocated out of the current department budget, the officials said, and clinicians will be added to all 21 of the department's service networks.
The vast majority of the new hires, about 1,400, will be patient-care providers. But the department also plans to hire more than 100 people for a crisis hot line as well as 100 examiners to review disability compensation and pension claims.
That disability compensation system is struggling with a growing backlog, with nearly 900,000 veterans currently waiting for decisions on their claims.