New VA hires good news, but where will they live?

The announcement that the Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City will hire 250 health care professionals is great news, and the fact that 100 of those positions will be mental health workers is especially welcome. Veterans — particularly combat veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — are in need of more opportunities for mental health care. But announcing plans to hire 250 people and accomplishing it may be two different things.

President Donald Trump's administration imposed a federal hiring freeze when he took office a year ago, barring agencies from filling vacancies or creating new positions. Exempt from the freeze were positions necessary for national security or public safety. Apparently, caring for the veterans of America's wars didn't fall under the category of national security, even though that was the stated reason for sending them into battle in the first place.

The freeze was lifted last April, but agencies still were directed to reduce the number of employees and become more efficient. The Veterans Affairs Department decided to allow new hires but to be careful about filling senior administrative positions. That was a good move, given the VA's track record of overspending and failing to deliver care effectively, including at SORCC.

Now the agency faces the task of competing for health care professionals and especially mental health specialists at a time when there is a nationwide shortage. Jackson County faced the same problem when it set out to recruit mental health workers to meet the growing demand from the expansion of the Oregon Health Plan.

Besides the difficulty of competing for workers, the local VA facility will face another obstacle: Housing.

With the rental vacancy rate hovering around 1 percent in the county, housing is already hard to find, and home prices are rising.

It's hard enough to persuade a qualified health worker to relocate here — the SORCC's human relations chief notes many workers imagine Southern Oregon to be rainy like the rest of the state — without adding a housing shortage on top of it.

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