They join more than 300 VA mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors and others, said Portland VA spokesman Dan Herrigstad.
Nationally, Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki pledged last year that the VA would add 1,600 mental health professionals and 300 support staffers to help the agency cope with the rising demand for services. VA officials told a Senate committee in March that the agency had hired 1,089 with four months to go on its self-imposed deadline.
Portland added only five new mental health professionals under the national initiative, but Herrigstad said, “the main reason is PVAMC was actually in pretty good shape going into it with regard to the number of (mental health) professionals we had on staff.”
Despite the hiring progress, the VA’s challenge remains great. In February, the Government Accountability Office told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that “long wait times and inadequate scheduling processes” still hinder the agency’s ability to serve veterans seeking medical care, including for mental health services. That was a key issue that triggered Shinseki’s goal to boost mental health staffing by about 10 percent.
“The VA has done a great job by making a commitment to vastly increase its mental health services,” said Chris Marvin, a former Army officer who is managing director of the Got Your 6 campaign, an effort to build awareness of veterans’ issues. He said much of the shortfall in providing needed mental health care to veterans was the result of “geographical mismatching.”
The Portland VA’s Telehealth program uses online video and telecommunications to serve veterans who live at a distance from Portland. It “is making a real positive difference in the care that we provide,” said Herrigstad.
Some have said that the VA’s hiring initiative doesn’t significantly boost the mental health services available in a community because new employees are hired from other providers. Others have faulted the VA for a hiring process they say is cumbersome.
But in Portland, the five new mental health professionals are on the job.
Overall, said Herrigstad, the Portland VA’s Mental Health Division has provided services to 16,743 veterans over the last 12 months.
The Portland VA Medical Center
3710 SW U.S. Veterans Hospital Rd., Portland 97239
24-hour telephone care: 503-220-8262 or 800-949-1004