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WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday it was increasing its staff of mental health workers by roughly 1,900, part of an effort to anticipate medical needs of veterans returning home from war.

The department plans to add about 1,600 clinicians, including psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and social workers, and about 300 support staff to an existing mental health staff of roughly 20,590.

As the tide of war recedes, we have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to anticipate the needs of returning Veterans, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said in a statement. History shows that the costs of war will continue to grow for a decade or more after the operational missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have ended. As more Veterans return home, we must ensure that all Veterans have access to quality mental health care.

Since 2007, the VA has experienced a 35 percent increase in the number of veterans receiving mental health services. The department says hiring for the new positions will begin immediately.

The mental well-being of U.S. veterans has been a critical area of concern in recent years, especially amid reports raising questions about how long those seeking care are forced to wait for treatment. A VA survey released last fall, for instance said that nearly 40 percent of the 272 mental health providers surveyed said they could not schedule a new patient for an appointment within two weeks, and 70 percent said they lacked adequate space and staff.

Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the announcement was a good start, but that the VA also needs to decrease wait times for veterans seeking care and to strengthen training of employees who encounter veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Right now, too many veterans fall through the cracks. We can avert tragedy with the proper outreach and care, Miller said in a statement.

Sen. Patty Murray, who chairs the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, has scheduled a hearing on the topic for next week. A VA inspector general report that Murray had requested on mental health is due in days. She said the new hires were desperately needed at a time when staff vacancies, scheduling delays and red tape are leaving veterans without help.

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