ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Curbing suicide among military veterans and boosting access to mental health care are among the top priorities of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Deputy Secretary Scott Blackburn said Friday.
Blackburn, an Army veteran, said staffing shortages in mental health and other specialties were among concerns he heard about while meeting with patients, doctors and others at New Mexico's largest VA medical center.
Administrators acknowledged that recruiting psychiatrists has been a challenge in New Mexico, and that the shortage extends far beyond the VA system. The state currently has a shortage of about 130 psychiatrists and needs dozens more primary care physicians to meet demand, officials said.
Blackburn said the VA has been busy trying to re-imagine many of its processes and policies in hopes of removing bureaucratic and logistical hurdles to care. He was among those who joined the VA in late 2014 as the agency began rebuilding itself following a scandal in which as many as 40 veterans died while waiting to be scheduled for appointments at the Phoenix VA medical center.
Long wait times were also documented at the Albuquerque medical center, but Blackburn said Friday that progress has been made and the agency plans to keep moving forward with a program that allows veterans to seek care in the private sector.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump signed legislation temporarily extending the Veterans Choice Program, which allows eligible veterans to seek medical care in the private sector.
Blackburn pointed to the importance of veterans having options before he ticked off statistics related to suicide.
About 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Statistics show that only six were part of the VA system, and only three of those six had seen a mental health provider in the past couple of years, Blackburn said.
"If we as a country are serious about addressing this issue, we need to attack it from all angles and we need to work together," he said. "This is something the VA won't be able to do all by itself. We're going to have to partner with states, with cities, with nonprofits, with private health care systems, with whoever has an interest in this."
Given the rural and personnel challenges in New Mexico and other Western states, Blackburn said telemedicine will likely become a bigger part of reaching veterans in remote areas.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is among the doctors taking advantage of telemedicine. He sees patients in Oregon from his office in Washington, D.C., Blackburn said.
"That's a great wave of the future," he said, noting that the VA is working with the White House and others to tackle some of the federal restrictions that currently limit the ability of health providers to work remotely and prescribe medications across state lines.
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