Starting next summer, Veterans Affairs officials will award scholarships to students studying mental health care in exchange for a promise that the recipients work for the department after graduation, the latest effort from leaders to try to fill critical staffing vacancies.

The move, mandated by Congress as part of the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019, will provide two years of tuition for graduate level studies in exchange for a promise of six years of work at a VA Vet Center. Officials said that “underserved areas that need additional mental health professionals” would be prioritized.

“Vet Centers provide Veterans, service members, and their families with quick and easy access to the mental health care they need and deserve,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement.

“These scholarships will help VA ensure all veterans and service members — including those in historically underserved areas — have access to Vet Centers with highly qualified, trained and compassionate staff.”

Only five scholarships are expected to be awarded in the first year, making the move largely symbolic. VA leaders have said in recent years that they need hundreds of psychologists, psychiatrists, family therapists and counselors to keep up with growing demand across the department’s health system.

McDonough has pushed for better pay and benefits for new hires, but he has also noted that much of the problem stems from a shortfall in trained professionals across the country.

A study published in the National Library of Medicine in August estimated that the American medical community will have as many as 31,000 psychiatry vacancies by 2024. Based on current education and enrollment statistics, filling all of those posts with qualified individuals could take another 25 years.

VA has 300 Vet Centers spaced out around the country. The community-based counseling sites offer a wide range of support services, including mental health care and job placement assistance.

Officials said more than 286,000 veterans and family members used Vet Center services in fiscal 2022.

Scholarship recipients will be assigned to sites with high-veteran usage and problematic vacancies. VA officials expect about 50 applicants per year, all of whom are already graduate students studying in-demand specialties.

Information on the scholarship is available on the Federal Register web site.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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