The VA San Diego is trying to cope with the longest wait times for patients seeking mental health care of any Veterans Affairs office in the country.
For one physician, it feels like the problem has been getting worse.
Dr. Hoang Nguyen has worked as a psychiatrist for the VA San Diego for nearly 19 years. San Diego has seen the demand for mental health appointments increase 9 percent a year for the last 10 years. Nguyen said the recent departure of mental health professionals has made the wait times even longer for veterans.
“I think the number of physicians ... is the lowest I’ve known since I’ve been here," Nguyen said. "So we have more openings than I remember.”
Nguyen works in the geriatric clinic. One of the four psychiatrists working in the clinic recently retired. The VA San Diego is trying to fill a total of 30 positions in its mental health clinics. Some staff members have been hired and are waiting to come on board. Others are being recruited. The VA recently recruited six psychiatrists, and the agency is actively seeking another seven. VA San Diego also has two open spots in its PTSD clinic, according to data provided by the VA. Demand for the clinic’s services has grown because of an influx of younger combat veterans.
Recruiting and keeping providers is tough, even in San Diego. “We have Sharp," Nguyen said. "We have the Navy hospital. So I think the choices for a psychiatrist here make it hard for the VA to say ‘we are here and we have a bigger role.’”
The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the United States will struggle to fill 2,800 mental health care positions this year because of a national shortage of psychiatrists.