A Lagging Indicator

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Even as the pace of war, and the number of Americans waging it, is falling, their need for mental-health care is growing. On Thursday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced it is boosting its mental-health workforce by 1,600 psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers – a 10% hike, as well as hiring 300 support staff to help them do their jobs.

“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,” VA chief Eric Shinseki says. “As more veterans return home, we must ensure that all veterans have access to quality mental health care.” The trouble, of course, will be finding them. The civilian world has a shortage of such help, as does the Army. The VA will be no different.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have triggered wave after wave of vets coming home with mental ills. They include post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries, which often trigger depression, anxiety and other problems.

Much of the additional hiring will be to reduce current waiting times for mental-health care, veterans’ advocates say. Many wait weeks or months for appointments, and additional vets seeking care will only make such delays longer without additional help.

And make no mistake: Shinseki made his announcement under pressure from the judicial branch of the federal government. Last May, a federal appellate court ruled that the VA’s provision of mental-health care to vets is so poor as to make it unconstitutional:

The United States Constitution confers upon veterans and their surviving relatives a right to the effective provision of mental health care and to the just and timely adjudication of their claims for health care and service-connected death and disability benefits…their entitlements to the provision of health care and to veterans’ benefits are property interests protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The deprivation of those property interests by delaying their provision, without justification and without any procedure to expedite, violates veterans’ constitutional rights. Because neither Congress nor the Executive has corrected the behavior that yields these constitutional violations, the courts must provide the plaintiffs with a remedy.

In 2011, the VA provided mental health care to 1.3 million veterans. Since 2007, VA has seen a 35 percent increase in the number of veterans receiving mental health services, and a 41 percent increase in mental health staff.

“Right now, too many veterans fall through the cracks,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “I am hopeful VA’s decision today, stemming from years of pressure and increased funding from Congress, will expand access for veterans and help them lead full and long lives.”