VA psychologist positions on the rise

Thanks to the VA's mental health enhancement initiatives, psychologist staff positions at the agency have now returned to mid-1990's numbers

Communications Staff

March 29, 2007 — Times are changing for health care delivery to veterans in the United States and for the psychologists who help provide the services.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the number of VA psychologists on staff rose by 19 percent from Fiscal Year 2003 (FY03) to the end of the first quarter of FY07, increasing from 1578 to 1880 positions. The majority of that growth, slightly more than 9 percent, occurred between FY05 and FY06. The upward trend restores psychologist staff positions as of last year to approximately the same number as in 1995.

Much of the recent increase is attributable to the VA’s mental health enhancement initiatives (MHEI) that began in 2005. According to Brad Karlin, PhD, director of psychotherapy programs in the VA’s office of mental health services, these initiatives implement recommendations contained in the agency’s mental health strategic plan. The plan is based on the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health’s final report from 2003.

The MHEI involve a wide spectrum of services for veterans, according to Dr. Karlin, including integrating mental health services into primary care at VA facilities throughout the country and aiding psychosocial rehabilitation. Psychologists are involved with providing intensive mental health case management as part of interdisciplinary patient care teams. They also provide symptom management and substance abuse treatment services, as well as recovery-oriented patient care, for example, by serving as “recovery coordinators.” According to Karlin, psychologists are integrally involved in facilitating independent living for the nation’s veterans, a major focus for the VA.

Even though new positions resulting from the MHEI are not entirely pegged for psychologists, Dr. Karlin says that these initiatives offer substantial and increasing employment opportunities for licensed psychologists. There were approximately 118 psychology positions awarded under the MHEI for FY05, 227 positions for the following fiscal year, and 465 slots thus far under FY07 initiatives. Over $300 million in funds were allocated to MHEI during this fiscal year alone, and they are budgeted to continue at least through FY08, and likely beyond, says Karlin.

The VA is comprised of roughly 1,400 health care facilities throughout United States, approximately 90 percent of which are community-based outpatient clinics. Some of the MHEI-related positions from FY07 as well as the preceding two fiscal years are unfilled; the openings are dispersed throughout the country.

Local VA stations are responsible for classifying the positions and connecting them to a specific professional discipline or disciplines. For example, a position might be classified as being for a “psychologist”, “social worker” or both. The VA provides guidance to local stations about suitable professions for various positions.

The VA Central Office is aiding local facilities with recruitment efforts, for example, by placing ads in professional journals (see the March 2007 issue of APA’s Monitor on Psychology) and by requiring that all VA facilities list available positions centrally from the Department of Veterans Affairs website. Psychologists who have completed an APA-accredited doctoral program and an APA-accredited internship (including trainees completing these programs) who are interested in exploring professional opportunities with the VA should visit this Web site. Psychologist graduates who are not yet licensed can be hired, but must obtain licensure within two years after hiring in order to remain in a VA psychology position.

“This is an unprecedented time for psychology in VA,” says Dr. Karlin. “We’re changing the way we provide health services to veterans, and psychologists are contributing significantly to the innovation.”