Pacific Northwest gets 0.5 percent of VA’s new mental health hires

From The Oregonian, April 25, 2012

LISTEN – Report: VA Mental Health Treatment Stats Misleading,
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In a response to complaints about long wait times and unmet needs for veterans’ mental health care, the federal Department of Veterans Affairs said last week it would hire 1,900 additional mental health workers, most of them clinicians.

How many of them will be hired in the VA’s Region 20, which covers Oregon, Washington, Alaska and most of Idaho?


“‘Oy, veh!,’ as my mother would say,” said Belle Landau, executive director of the Returning Veterans Project, a non-profit that provides free counseling for veterans. Landau said that the need for more veterans’ mental health services in Oregon is obvious, citing the relatively high number of suicides among Oregon National Guard soldiers between 2007 and 2010 and stories of “15-minute health appointments” at the VA.

The VA divides its territories into Veterans Integrated Service Networks, or VISNs. VISN 20 includes the three most northwestern states, much of Idaho and one county each in Montana and California. It includes such major full-time military installations as Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Naval Base Kitsap on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richards near Anchorage. Joint Base Lewis-McChord alone has 42,000 soldiers and airmen.

Oregon has no full-time military base, but multiple National Guard installations. Oregon’s Department of Veterans Affairs — which is not connected with the federal VA — says Oregon is home to 333,800 veterans, including 21,731 who served in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, had praised the VA in the wake of its announcement last week. She called the hiring of 1,900 more mental health workers a “desperately needed step,” citing “staff vacancies, scheduling delays and red tape” that interfered with veterans’ ability to seek mental health care.

On Tuesday, Murray communications director Matt McAlvanah said the senator “is concerned that the proposed allotment of mental health professionals is not enough to meet the tremendous needs in the Northwest.” And he said she would discuss the subject with VA leadership in the coming days.

Nationally, the VA’s Inspector General said Monday that the agency had vastly overstated its success in providing timely mental health evaluations and treatment. The VA has a goal of providing mental health evaluations to first-time patients within 24 hours of their request, with a more comprehensive diagnostic and treatment planning evaluation within 14 days. The VA said last year it had succeeded 95 percent of the time in providing first-time patients with full mental health evaluations within 14 days.

Not so, the Inspector General said Monday. Instead, the agency met its goal only 49 percent of the time, with an average wait time of 50 days.

The IG’s report said the agency does not have a reliable way to measure its success and noted that mental health staff vacancies may be impeding the agency’s ability to meet the needs of veterans seeking mental health care. It offered a series of recommendations including improving the way it measures its success in delivering mental health care and analyzing its staffing to see whether the agency faces “a systemic issue” impeding its ability to meet its goals.

Kelli Roesch, the acting public affairs officer at the VA’s Portland Medical Center, said four of the 10 additional VA jobs would be compensation and pension specialists. And she added that the Portland VA Medical Center is “making steady headway” in regular hiring, bringing on three social workers and two psychologists, among other recently filled jobs.

She said the Portland VA Medical Center has 300 full-time and part-time mental health workers and they treated 16,000 vets last year.