By KEVIN FREKING, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Members of Congress expressed doubts Tuesday on plans by the Department of Veterans Affairs' to hire 1,900 additional workers to improve access to mental health care.
Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over veterans' issues, said the VA's plans to beef up staffing looked like a knee-jerk reaction to a critical inspector general's investigation that was in the works.
That investigation released two weeks ago found that nearly half of the veterans seeking mental health care for the first time waited about 50 days before getting a full evaluation. The VA had been reporting that the vast majority of evaluations were being conducted within 14 days.
Miller said the investigation also showed that the VA did not have reliable data to measure staffing needs.
"If VA doesn't even have a complete picture of the problem, how confident can we be that access will be increased and care enhanced by the VA's knee-jerk reaction," Miller said during an oversight hearing. "This is not the first time we have been here."
VA officials insisted that the plans to hire more workers had been in the works for months. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said that the department's hiring proposal was based mostly upon an increase in patients that has occurred in recent years, in part, because the department had made it easier for veterans to submit disability claims for post-traumatic stress disorder.
VA officials said that while they agreed with the inspector general's recommendations, they did not necessarily agree that only half of the veterans seeking mental health care were seen within the recommended 14 days. Nevertheless, Shinseki said that improving access to mental health care would be his highest priority.
"Our efforts will not cease with the announcement of the 1,900 additional personnel," Shinseki said. "Future adjustments may be likely."
Miller pointed out the VA already has 1,500 job openings. He said he did not think anybody on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs actually believed the department would be able to fill those openings quickly.
"How in the world are you going to accomplish that in a timely fashion in order to provide mental health care to the veterans who need it today?" Miller said.
VA officials said it will get most of the additional hiring completed in the next six months, but added that some specialties are difficult to fill and that hiring may carry over to early 2013. Officials said they would particularly enhance the salary of psychiatrists in hopes of hiring about 60 more in the coming months.
"We're beginning to hone in on this most difficult recruiting challenge," Shinseki said.
Officials also told lawmakers that they were beginning an advertising campaign focused on recruiting mental health professionals. They also have nearly two dozen recruiters in place who will be reaching out to health care workers.
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