VA responds to Iraq, Afghan vets by adding mental health workers

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK
  • Star Tribune
  • April 19, 2012 - 9:26 PM

The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday announced plans to increase mental health staffing by 1,900 positions, responding to rising needs of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and complaints of long waits and missed diagnoses.

"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 Shinseki said in a statement. "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."

A spokesman for the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center, the largest in the region, said it was too early to tell how many mental health positions might be added locally by the plan. Veterans seen by the hospital's mental health unit have increased 23 percent in the past five years. Staffing of the unit is up 22 percent over the same time frame. At the state's other VA hospital in St. Cloud, the number of veterans seen for mental health issues has risen by almost 30 percent since 2006.

Shinseki announced the department would add about 1,600 mental nurses, psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers as well as nearly 300 support staff members to its existing mental health workforce of 20,590 as part of an ongoing review of mental health operations.

The new hires come on top of a 41 percent staff increase since 2007 and a 35 percent jump in the number of veterans receiving mental health services, according to the VA.

The department said a review of mental health operations has shown that some VA facilities require more mental health staffers. Many of the new hires are likely to be focused on areas of the country where vacancies are prevalent and positions difficult to fill, like the Northwest and Deep South, where the VA has about a 20 percent shortfall of psychiatrists, according to VA data.

The VA will allocate funds from the current budget to 21 VA service networks across the country this month to begin immediate recruiting. The announcement of the increase comes a week before the expected release of a VA inspector general report on long wait times for VA mental health care.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., a member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called the announcement "a good first step."

"After the sacrifices made by our brave warriors, the least we can do is ensure they receive quality, patient-centered care when they get home," Walz said.

Said Klobuchar: "I believe we need to do more to make sure there isn't a waiting line for our brave men and women in uniform when they return home from serving our country. That means providing our VA clinics and hospitals with the resources and additional training they need to support our troops as they make the transition from military to civilian life."

In Minneapolis, 16,775 veterans were seen by the mental health unit in 2011, up from 13,628 veterans in 2007. At the same time, the Minneapolis VA's full-time equivalent mental health staffing rose from 203 in 2007 to 247 currently.

A spokesman for the Minneapolis VA on Thursday said the hospital could not provide information on whether the it has vacancies in its mental health staff. A spokesman for the St. Cloud VA said it has vacancies for a staff psychiatrist and a social worker out of a staff of 250, with the average wait for an appointment for new patients at 11 to 12 days.

On Sunday, the Star Tribune reported on the case of one Iraq war veteran who went to the Minneapolis VA last year expecting to be admitted after hearing voices and feeling "clairvoyant." Instead, he was told he was not a threat to himself or others and told to return a few days later. In the midst of what would later be diagnosed as a "psychotic break," he stole a car and ended up being struck by a van as he ran across rush-hour traffic.

The Minneapolis VA mental health services follows about 16,000 patients at any one time and 95 percent of those seeking help obtain an appointment within the VA-mandated two-week window, said Dr. Michael Dieperink, director of mental health services for the Minneapolis VA. The hospital's 24-bed inpatient psychiatric unit has a 10-bed average daily census and does not have a history of being full.

"To think that at any one time there are only 10 people in our inpatient ward speaks to the robust amount of outpatient care that we can provide," Dieperink said. "We do just a fabulous job."

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.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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