More Information on Counselors and the Department of Veterans Affairs

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More Information on Counselors and the Department of Veterans Affairs

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) advocated for recognition and employment of professional counselors by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for years, efforts that passed a law in 2006 adding licensed professional mental health counselors (LPMHCs) to the list of professions eligible for VA employment.

The VA did not immediately establish the hiring qualifications necessary to begin employing professional counselors after the passage of the law directing it to do so. NBCC continued its advocacy on this issue with both Congress and VA leadership, including providing testimony during a congressional hearing, which lead to the VA’s release of qualification standards in December 2010, allowing for the hiring of LPMHCs to begin. Since that time, NBCC has continued to work with the VA to integrate the counseling profession into the VA health care.

Although VA officials acknowledge the value of counselors for their mission, the pace of counselor hiring by the VA has been unacceptably slow. A 2012 hiring initiative to add 1,600 new mental health professionals to the VA workforce resulted in the employment of only a handful of counselors, despite NBCC’s work with the VA to promote the initiative.

NBCC continues to work with the VA and with Congress to determine the cause of the problem and find a solution.

VA Communication

NBCC has continuously communicated with top VA officials, including those in the Office of Mental Health Services and the Readjustment Counseling Service, which oversees the vet centers. In addition to letters requesting information and action to address the inadequate hiring of LPMHCs, NBCC has met with VA staff on numerous occasions, both one-on-one and with other stakeholder organizations.

Congressional Involvement

While continuing to work with the VA on the issue, NBCC is seeking congressional involvement to address the low level of counselor employment. This has resulted in members of Congress voicing their dissatisfaction with the situation both in hearings and in letters, as well as bills to address the issue. At NBCC’s request, several congressional offices have submitted questions for the record to the VA seeking an update on employment numbers and steps the VA is taking to increase available positions.

The Health Professionals Trainee Program

The VA Office of Academic Affiliations (OAA) maintains connections with thousands of colleges and universities around the country. As part of the OAA’s associated health education program, paid trainee positions are available to mental health practitioners, including social workers and psychologists.

While professional counselors became eligible for VA hiring with the release of the 2010 handbook update, they are still not accepted for the paid trainee support program. Counselor inclusion in this program is a major priority for NBCC’s ongoing VA efforts.

NBCC’s Actions

NBCC has met with OAA senior staff and submitted a letter to VA Undersecretary for Health Robert to request an explanation for the exclusion of counselors from the health professionals trainee program and a resolution to the problem. The VA has not provided a reasonable explanation and has declined to add professional counselors to the program, prompting NBCC to seek congressional support for a change in policy.

In June 2013, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced S. 1155, which includes a provision requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to add LPMHCs to the paid trainee program.

News Archive

Fall 2013—The omnibus 2014 appropriations bill included report language urging the VA to add LPMHCs to the Office of Academic Affiliations’ Health Professionals Trainee Program. The law was enacted when President Obama signed the omnibus bill, and the reports were incorporated by reference. While the reports are not law, agencies are loath to ignore direction provided by their congressional appropriators.

NBCC is also pursuing legislation to mandate LPMHC inclusion in the program. In June, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced S. 1155, which includes a provision adding counselors to the trainee program. On November 19, 2013, S. 1155 was wrapped into an omnibus VA bill (S. 1581) and approved by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

On the House side, NBCC and its coalition partners successfully lobbied for a companion bill to S. 1155. HR. 3499 was introduced by Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) on November 14, 2013. There are currently 22 cosponsors of the bill.

NBCC is working with the VA to adopt internal policies encouraging counselor employment. NBCC continues to meet with leadership from the VA Mental Health Services and Mental Health Operations to discuss VA job vacancies for counselors.

Furthermore, at the urging of NBCC, new LPMHC appointments have been made to the LPMHC Professional Standards Board (PSB). Due to existing VA appointment policy, the initial board was comprised of professionals predominantly from other disciplines (such as social workers and psychologists). The PSB is starting to replace these professionals with LPMHCs now that the counselors have had time to meet the appointment criteria.