WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 18, 2007) - Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jim Nicholson directed the Department of Veterans Affairs' 153 medical centers keep their doors open longer in order to increase health care, especially mental-health services, for veterans.

Although the change applies to many hospital-based programs and services, Mr. Nicholson said the longer hours are to make the VA's more than 9,000 mental-health professionals available when veterans need them.

"Illness doesn't follow a nine-to-five schedule," Mr. Nicholson said. "I'm directing our medical centers to provide extended hours to ensure we're there for the veterans who have earned our care."

In recent months, Mr. Nicholson has announced a number of initiatives to improve mental-health care for returning combat veterans, including the hiring of suicide prevention coordinators for each medical center, 100 new adjustment counselors for VA's 207 Vet Centers, and 100 new medical-center employees to serve as advocates for the severely wounded.

VA's mental health experts will gather in Washington next month to reassess the VA's programs for veterans, especially veterans of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

VA operates the largest integrated health-care system in the country and the nation's largest mental-health program. About 5.5 million veterans are expected to seek health care from VA's nationwide system this year, accounting for about 800,000 hospitalizations and 60 million outpatient visits.