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VA defends mental health care in Montana, other facilities

Independent Record - 6/21/2024

Jun. 19—The U.S.Department of Veterans Affairs responded to letters from Montana's congressional delegation to not cut 10,000 frontline workers nationwide for fear of hurting health and mental health services, offering numbers that it remains committed to providing world-class care to eligible veterans and now has the largest health care workforce in history.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said Tuesday in an email that so far in fiscal year 2024, Montana Veterans Affairs Health Care System (MTVAHCS) "has completed over 24,200 mental health appointments and over 2,300 new mental health appointments."

"When you compare this data with FY 22, MTVAHCS has already exceeded the total number of appointments by 5,000, seeing over 400 new veterans more than FY22," Hayes wrote. "Finally, wait times for mental health appointments are shorter than last year and veterans are seen about 2 days earlier than in FY22."

Recently, the Republican members of Montana's congressional delegation sent a letter and Democratic Sen. Jon Tester sent his own letter telling VA officials to not cut 10,000 frontline care providers, saying such a move would hurt health care and mental care services to veterans in Montana.

CNN reported June 10 the VA has eliminated the frontline jobs even though agency leaders had said otherwise. Psychologists, clinical social workers and other positions have been cut, and some job offers have been rescinded recently as the agency seeks to address a budgetary shortfall and shave its workforce by 10,000 positions.

Hayes, in an email forwarded to Lee Montana Newspapers via Montana VA, said the VA continues to strategically hire in several key areas, such as mental health care and targeted locations and the "VA has the nationwide staffing total we need to deliver for our nation's veterans."

He said Montana saw an increase in onboard positions, despite a reduced full-time employee ceiling.

"Since the beginning of fiscal year 2023, MTVAHCS's overall staffing grew 8.2%, to include a 17% increase in mental health staff," Hayes wrote.

He said thanks to the PACT Act, the Montana VA Health Care System is able to attract and "most importantly, retain staff at levels not experienced before."

Hayes said retention rates for VA employees — including mental health professionals — are at all-time record rates.

He said the mental health profession retention rate was 93% in FY23, "and the numbers are even better in FY24."

The offices for Tester and Republican Sen. Steve Daines did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Hayes said the VA is proud of its "evidence-based and holistic mental health care and has taken varied actions to minimize staff shortages and turnover of mental health providers. In 2023, VA provided more than 22 million mental health care appointments to Veterans — a clear sign that Veterans are trusting VA with their care."

"We are reaching more veterans with more care, and we are working hard every day to improve the care we provide," he said.

He said nationally the VA continues to hire mental health professionals and over the last three fiscal years has hired for mental health positions including psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, licensed professional mental health counselors, peer support specialists, mental health nurses and mental health physician assistants:

—FY22: 3,073

—FY23: 4,093

—FY24: 2,008 (through April)

Hayes said Montana saw an increase in onboard positions, despite a reduced full-time employee ceiling. He said this underscores their commitment to improving mental health care in Montana.

Hayes said Montana exceeded the minimum outpatient staffing ratio of 7.72 per 1,000 veterans 10.46 per 1,000 veterans and was one of the best staff-to-veteran ratios in Veterans Integrated Services Network 19.

Montana staffing:

—FY22: 193 FTE ceiling/125 FTE onboard

—FY24: 164 FTE ceiling/155 FTE onboard (through May)

Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.

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(c)2024 the Independent Record (Helena, Mont.)

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