The VA hospital in Omaha hopes to benefit from a decision by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to add psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers to better combat the ever-growing number of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nationally, the VA plans to hire roughly 1,600 mental health professionals and 300 clerical workers, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki announced Thursday.
That hiring effort should boost the number of VA psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors by nearly 8 percent nationwide.
The VA Medical Center in Omaha could use more staff to expand its PTSD treatment, hopefully offering newly developed therapies to more PTSD-affected troops, said Dr. Praveen Fernandes, director of outpatient mental health services for the VA's Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System.
He also hopes to expand local mental health services for the caregivers — parents, spouses and siblings — of seriously injured or ill veterans.
It's too early to tell whether the Omaha VA will be able to hire more mental health professionals, Fernandes said, although information released by the VA indicates that the new employees will be spread throughout the country.
"We welcome this opportunity," Fernandes said Thursday. "We hope to increase not only the quantity but also the quality of our programs."
The hiring announcement came after reports showing that the number of veterans seeking mental health services is still growing. It also comes after a stinging court ruling that accused the VA of "marked incompetence" and ordered an overhaul of its mental health services.
The VA says 1.3 million veterans received mental health services last year, a 35 percent increase since 2007.
An average of 18 veterans commit suicide each day, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge wrote in a 2011 ruling blasting the VA for failing to provide quick and adequate mental health care to returning soldiers.
"No more veterans should be compelled to agonize and perish while the government fails to perform its obligations," wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt.
The Obama administration has appealed that ruling, which ordered the VA to change the way it provides mental health services. National VA leaders have called the ruling unfair and ill-informed.
A Nebraska or western Iowa veteran who seeks help from the VA Medical Center can get an evaluation and often start mental health treatment that same day, Fernandes said.
The number of local veterans who need treatment for PTSD, depression and other mental health concerns has risen about 4 percent each year for the past four or five years, he said.
The local VA has responded, he said, by moving mental health professionals into its general care clinics so they are available when veterans come in for regular checkups.
The Omaha VA has also beefed up programs for PTSD and substance abuse treatment, he said. The mental health staff now spends considerable time and energy seeking out veterans in cities and rural areas who may need mental health services but aren't actively looking to get help.
"We certainly feel we are meeting needs now," Fernandes said. "But we can definitely always do more."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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