Members of Congress are expressing frustration with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and its delivery of mental health services. Lawmakers voiced concerns during two recent congressional hearings, one held in the Senate and another held two days later in the House of Representatives. Concerns regarding veterans’ access to care are continuing as the American Counseling Association and other organizations are working to open up mental health clinician jobs for licensed professional counselors at VA facilities.
On Nov. 30, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs held a hearing that examined the wait times for veterans seeking mental health treatment. Committee members were noticeably frustrated that a problem still exists with veterans getting the help they need from the VA’s health care system. At the hearing, committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) discussed the results of a survey her office conducted of VA mental health providers concerning access to care. The survey found that in many areas of the country, waiting times to see a provider often exceeded 14 days, and 70 percent of providers said they did not have adequate staff or space to meet veterans’ mental health care needs. The stories of veterans suffering from a lack of care proved enough for Murray to announce she was going to request that the Office of the Inspector General conduct an investigation into the wait times and access. This would give lawmakers a clearer picture of where the system is failing in hopes that they can find solutions for getting veterans the mental health care they need and deserve.
Two days after the Senate hearing, the House Veterans Affairs’ Subcommittee on Health held its own hearing focused more narrowly on understanding and preventing suicides among veterans. The VA estimates that one veteran dies by suicide every 80 minutes. This is an appalling statistic and underscores the urgent need for change within the VA. Earlier this year, two veterans’ groups filed a lawsuit against the VA seeking injunctive relief to address delays in the provision of mental health care. The case is pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. House members at the hearing expressed interest in improving mental health treatment for veterans and service members through work with both the VA and the Department of Defense.
The House and Senate hearings demonstrate that the VA is suffering from an implementation problem. Although the central VA office in Washington might have established policies and guidelines for delivering services, those polices are not being adequately translated into action at the local level.
Throughout the past few weeks, ACA has partnered with the National Board for Certified Counselors, the American Mental Health Counselors Association and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy in multiple meetings with VA staff in an effort to expedite the hiring of counselors and marriage and family therapists within the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and within Vet Centers. At the beginning of November, coalition members met with Dr. Robert Zeiss, director of associated health education from the VA’s Office of Academic Affiliations, to discuss ways to increase the number of counselors participating in VA training programs. Trainee positions within VA facilities are a significant entryway to full-time employment for members of the other mental health professions and should be for counselors as well.
Our coalition also met recently with Dr. Madhulika Agarwal, the VHA’s deputy undersecretary for health for policy and services, to discuss hiring counselors to fill mental health clinician positions within Vet Centers. We were told the VA is awaiting quality standards that would allow it to hire counselors for Vet Centers. ACA also participated in a quarterly stakeholders meeting convened by the VA Office of Mental Health Services. This meeting provided another opportunity to discuss counselors’ qualifications and to reiterate the need for better recognition of counselors as eligible for mental health clinician positions at VA facilities.
Despite the fact that Congress has increased veterans’ mental health funding, counselors are still finding it difficult to find positions with the VA. Searches at usajobs.gov regularly turn up only one or two “licensed professional mental health counselor” positions, if any, but always return several social worker positions at VA facilities.
Please know that your ACA staff is working to get the issue addressed and is committed to finding solutions. If you find that your community has a VA facility that is not hiring counselors, then we need you to do two things:
1) Notify Art Terrazas of our public policy staff by either calling 800.347.6647 ext. 242 or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2) Notify your U.S. senators and representatives. Congress passed legislation (Public Law 109-461) five years ago to recognize licensed professional counselors as mental health specialists within the VA. Congress should conduct oversight to ensure that this law is being implemented and that veterans have adequate access to high-quality mental health service providers
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