VA makes curbing veteran suicides a top priority

FILE - In this June 21, 2013 file photo, the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington. Federal authorities are stepping up investigations at Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers due to a sharp increase in opioid theft, missing prescriptions or unauthorized drug use by VA employees since 2009, according to government data obtained by The Associated Press. A hearing is expected the week of Feb. 27. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) – U.S. Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Scott Blackburn says a top priority of the agency is to find ways to curb suicides among veterans and boost access to mental health care.

Blackburn visited with patients, doctors and administrators at the VA hospital in Albuquerque on Friday. Staffing shortages were among the concerns raised.

Blackburn, an Army veteran, said it’s unacceptable that about 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Of those, data shows about six receive care through the VA system and only half of them see a mental health provider.

Administrators acknowledged that recruiting psychiatrists has been a challenge in New Mexico but that the shortage extends beyond the VA system.

Hospital officials said New Mexico currently has a shortage of about 130 psychiatrists and is in need of dozens of primary care physicians.

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