WASHINGTON (AP) — The Veterans Affairs Department said Monday it has added more than 1,000 mental health professionals and 200 support staff over the past eight months to meet the needs of returning veterans, but still has more to do to meet the requirements of an executive order issued by President Barack Obama.
The VA needs to add about 550 more doctors, nurses and counselors by June 30 to comply with the executive order.
The VA announced new hiring goals in the spring, just days before an inspector general's report found the department had greatly overstated how quickly it provided mental health care to veterans seeking help. Obama expanded on that goal in August as both presidential candidates were reaching out to veterans in the heat of an election campaign. He also directed the VA to increase the capacity of its telephone crisis line by 50 percent and to ensure that a mental health professional contact within 24 hours any veteran who identifies themselves as in crisis.
The House Veterans' Affairs Committee is holding a hearing Wednesday to examine what progress the VA has made in its hiring program and in other mental health initiatives.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said the VA would not be slowing down in its effort to increase staffing. The new hires include psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, and licensed counselors and therapists, although there was not an exact breakdown for each category.
"We still need to hire more mental health professionals to reach our goal, but each new hire means we can treat more veterans and provide greater access to our mental health services," Shinseki said.
The VA also said it was still working on hiring and training 800 veterans to work as "peer specialists" on the VA's mental health teams. Some veterans are more comfortable reaching out to peers who have shared their experiences in serving during wartime. The peer staff is expected to be completely hired by Dec. 31.
The number of veterans getting mental health treatment from the VA has risen from about 927,000 in 2006 to more than 1.3 million in 2012.