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Can a Scholarship Program Fill VA’s Staffing Gaps?

Long-term staffing shortages in mental health professional positions have reached crisis proportions for the VA


 

In a new attempt to replenish the constantly draining pool of mental health professionals, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is establishing a scholarship program for students pursuing graduate degrees in psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy, or mental health counseling.

Staffing shortages in mental health have reached crisis proportions across the country, driven in part by 3 years of the pandemic. The VA is not immune. VA shortages go back a long way and have never really been resolved. In 2012, for instance, the VA announced that it planned to expand its mental health staff by nearly 10%, hiring about 1600 additional psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and other mental health clinicians to reduce long wait times at many VA medical centers. And indeed, between 2018 and 2021, the number of severe shortages reported declined from 3,068 to 2,152.

However, in 2021, the VA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) released its eighth report in a series on occupational staffing shortages for the 139 facilities. According to the OIG report, 136 facilities reported at least 1 severe occupational staffing shortage, an increase from 132 in fiscal year 2020. Psychiatry was the most frequently reported clinical occupation with severe staffing shortages.

In July 2022, the OIG released its ninth report and the fifth to identify “severe occupational staffing shortages” for VA facilities. The OIG found severe shortages were widespread: Facilities identified 2,622 severe occupational staffing shortages across 285 occupations, which ended a downward trend. Of the 139 facilities, 73 identified severe shortage in psychology, 71 listed psychiatry, 44 listed social work, and 30 listed registered nurse staff for inpatient mental health sections.

In fact, although the Veterans Health Administration has been increasing the number of staff since 2017, psychology and psychiatry have remained in the top 10 most frequently reported severe shortages annually.

The scholarship program, expected to start in summer 2023, will fund up to 2 years of graduate studies. After completing their degrees, the mental health professionals will serve full time for 6 years at one of the VA’s Vet Centers, specifically in underserved areas and in states with a per capita population of more than 5% veterans. Vet Centers are community-based outpatient counseling centers that provide a wide range of social and psychological services.

“In 300 communities across the country, Vet Centers provide veterans, service members, and their families with quick and easy access to the mental health care they need and deserve,” said VA Secretary Denis McDonough. “These scholarships will help VA ensure all veterans and service members—including those in historically underserved areas—have access to Vet Centers with highly qualified, trained and compassionate staff.”

The VA has posted a final rule for public inspection in the Federal Register 86 FR 81094 to create the scholarship program.

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