Psychiatrist shortage felt nationwide - and in VA system

'Our mental health professionals are being stretched too thin'

The Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital in Iowa City. (file photo)
The Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital in Iowa City. (file photo)

DES MOINES — A nationwide shortage of psychiatrists has created a similar shortage in the U.S. Veterans Affairs department, which can amplify the department’s challenge in having sufficient staff to provide mental health care to veterans.

A 2015 report showed the VA was critically short on psychiatrists. The report, published by the VA Inspector General, said more than two-thirds of VA health care facilities studied — 94 of 140 — needed more psychiatrists on staff to meet demand.

To fill those gaps, VA hospitals often contract with private practice psychiatrists.

But the problem is the private sector also is woefully short on psychiatrists.

The shortage is being felt across the country. Dr. Atul Grover, executive vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, recently told Forbes that expanded access to health care under federal reforms has led to more people seeking mental health care and thus put a strain on the availability of mental health professionals.

A 2017 report said psychiatrists have become the second-most highly recruited physicians, trailing only family physicians. The report was published by Merritt Hawkins, a national physician search and consulting firm.

Iowa has not been immune. The state has been dealing with a psychiatrist shortage for years; 89 of the state’s 99 counties have a mental health professional shortage, according to the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

“Iowa’s shortage of psychiatrists unfortunately exacerbates the VA’s shortage of psychiatrists. Our mental health professionals are being stretched too thin,” said U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a veteran and member of the Senate’s armed services committee. “It’s critical that the VA look to strengthen recruiting and retention of health professionals so our veterans have access to quality, timely mental health care.”

Neither the federal Veterans Affairs media office nor the VA Central Iowa Health Care System returned messages seeking more information.


In 2014, an average of 20 veterans per day died from suicide, according to a 2016 VA report. Of those 20 deaths, an average of six used the VA for health care services, the report said.

Legislators have attempted to address the VA psychiatrist shortage. For example, one bill in the U.S. House would allow the VA to fill positions that have been vacant for more than 35 years by appointing psychiatrists immediately upon completion of their residencies regardless of civil service or classification laws.

In Iowa, the state in 2016 issued a $4 million grant to create psychiatry residency programs at three Des Moines hospitals.

“From my experience as the former President of Des Moines University, I know that specialized physicians are more likely to remain in Iowa if they do their residency here,” then-Gov. Terry Branstad said when the program was announced. “Iowa is taking steps to ensure that these health care professionals remain an important fabric of our communities, both urban and rural.”

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