TOPICS > Health

VA Adds 1,600 Workers to Fix Backlog, but ‘Always More We Can Do’

April 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Responding to a backlog of mental health cases and a blistering federal appeals court ruling, Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Thursday that the agency will hire 1,600 more professionals -- including psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. Jeffrey Brown and the VA's Sonja Batten discuss the new hires' goals.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to a response from the Veterans Administration to a growing backlog of mental health cases from current and past wars.

Today, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said the agency will add 1,600 professionals, including psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, and another 300 clerical workers to speed up processing of claims.

A federal appeals court issued a blistering ruling last year demanding the VA offer better mental health care for veterans. Next week, Senate committee hearings on the issue are scheduled, as is the release of a report from the VA’s inspector general.

To discuss all this, we’re joined by Sonja Batten, a senior mental health official at the VA.

And welcome to you.

SONJA BATTEN, Veterans Administration: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: The criticism you have faced is that the VA has up to now been underprepared and not responsive enough, given the sheer numbers. Is that fair?

SONJA BATTEN: In VA, we take the issue of access to mental health care very seriously.

And we’ve been instituting a number of measures to make sure that we’re identifying where there may be gaps in care. And so we want to make sure that as we do our site visits to every VA medical center around the country, we identify where there may be gaps, problems with staffing.

And that’s why Secretary Shinseki today announced and we’re so delighted that we’re going to be adding 1,600 new clinicians so that we can provide the care that we need.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, may be gaps. It sounds like critics see gaps. The judge — I mentioned this case. That was a very strong report. He said, “The VA’s unchecked incompetence has gone on long enough. No more veterans should be compelled to agonize or perish while the government fails to perform its obligation,” tough language.

So what is the problem?

SONJA BATTEN: In VA, we’re very proud of the advancements that we have made in our clinical care.

In the past seven years, we have added 7,000 new mental health professionals. We have provided training and we have instituted the Veterans Crisis Line. So we feel that we have made great progress, but there’s a lot more to do, and we acknowledge that there’s more that we need to do in order to meet our own aspirational standards.

JEFFREY BROWN: Has the more to do been a shortage of personnel, or using the right personnel, or the personnel you have not able to do what is necessary given the needs?

SONJA BATTEN: The primary issue that we’ve identified at this point is having enough personnel, which is exactly why we have announced today that we will be hiring new people.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what will happen now with these new hires? How specifically will they be used?

SONJA BATTEN: So the money will go out to VA medical centers around the country beginning immediately.

We’ll start recruiting immediately and we will be able to hire psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, mental health nurses. And one of the things we’re very excited about is actually that we’ve just finished the qualification standards for two new sets of mental health professionals that have previously been untapped resources.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meaning what?

SONJA BATTEN: Those are marriage and family therapists and licensed professional counselors. So we’ve been recruiting for psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and nurses, but now we’ll also be able to expand to those other counselors as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean a specific need. Is this a question of identifying specific problems and trying to address it with professionals that have those specific abilities?

SONJA BATTEN: Yeah, exactly. So each facility will be identifying — if they have gaps, if there’s a facility that doesn’t have enough of one type of professional or they want to expand the services they have for couples and families, a facility like that might begin to hire more marriage and family therapists.

JEFFREY BROWN: I gather one issue here has been the problem of finding and hiring qualified people, especially in rural areas. How do you address that?

SONJA BATTEN: You know, one of the things that we think is important is, for example, today being able to come on your show and we really are looking forward to recruitment.

These positions will begin to be posted immediately. All of our positions are posted on And we hope that if there are committed professionals out there today even watching this show, they will start to look for those positions.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where does the funding for this come from, at a time of obviously limited resources?

SONJA BATTEN: VA has actually identified that we have sufficient funding in this fiscal year’s budget to be able to finance these positions and we are going to start looking at what we have for fiscal year ’13 and identifying if we have enough to support that. But we are committed to keeping these positions full.

JEFFREY BROWN: How serious a problem is this? I mean, the suicides, the depression it’s something we’ve looked at many times on this program. It’s not new. And it seems to continue and now you’re addressing it with this.

But how serious is it and why hasn’t it been addressed up to now?

SONJA BATTEN: Well, I think what we know is that since the beginning of warfare, if you go back to the Trojan War, we have reports of these very same issues. So these are not new problems and we have been addressing them.

We have more mental health professionals than we’ve ever had before. We have more well-trained mental health professionals than ever before. We have 24/7 crisis line that veterans can contact. We’ve added a chat feature and a texting feature so that veterans can contact us anonymously if they prefer.

We feel like we have made significant advances, but there’s always more that we can do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is this the idea that these 1,600 is enough, do you think, or this going to be reassessed and possibly more will be needed?

SONJA BATTEN: Yes, we’re going to continue reassessing this. We’re not going to stop at this 1,600. We are doing site visits to every VA across the country. We’re looking at our administrative data. We’re talking to veterans at every VA that we go to and getting their input.

And if it turns out that a few months from now or six month from now, we feel like we need more, we’ll ask for more.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re continuing to take heat from — I mentioned Senate hearings next week, an Inspector General report that may have some more detail. Is that causing some of these changes, leading to some of the changes or rethinking of how you do it?

SONJA BATTEN: We appreciate the attention from the Senate, from the I.G.

We share with them the commitment to making sure that what the veterans need they are receiving. But this is actually a process that we began months ago. We started with surveys of our own mental health professionals then in — last summer. And we began site visits in December to go out to every VA facility. And this is the next step after looking at those interim data. So this is something we’ve had in process for months.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Sonja Batten of the Veterans Administration, thank you very much.

SONJA BATTEN: Thank you.