In October, the federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) announced that it had finished creating the occupational series for mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is set to implement these new occupational series for existing positions and new hires within 90 days.
This breakthrough comes as the result of years of advocacy by NBCC, counselors, and our allies in Congress. It will allow departments throughout the federal government to finally hire counselors in a way that reflects their qualifications and professional identity. Although VA is the first to implement them, the new occupational series are available for all federal agencies.
This news came in response to a June letter from Sens. Jon Tester (D-MT) and Jerry Moran (R-KS), the chair and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. They requested an update from VA and OPM on the efforts to create the occupational series, as required by the Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019 that was signed into law in October of 2020.
This legislation required VA to consult with OPM to create an occupational series for mental health counselors and to compile a staffing plan for mental health counselors and document any barriers that exist to hiring them. This inclusion in the law was the result of much advocacy by NBCC and our allies to address a shortage of counselors in the VA health system.
“The creation of the new occupational series for LPMHCs and MFTs will ensure VA is able to hire and retain more mental health professionals to provide the high-quality care our nation’s veterans deserve,” says NBCC President and CEO Kylie Dotson-Blake. “We applaud Sen. Tester and Sen. Moran for their dedication to ensuring access to care for veterans and their years of work on this important issue.”
Job positions in the federal government are categorized in one of the occupational series established by OPM. Prior to this development, there was no occupational series for professional counselors, even though occupational series existed for other professions with similar education and training. Without a dedicated occupational series, counselors employed by the federal government could only be employed in generic series, which limited opportunities for hiring and advancement.
NBCC became aware of the limitations posed by the lack of occupational series back in 2007 and requested that OPM create such a series. In 2009, NBCC met with VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration to encourage the creation of VA qualification standards and an occupational series. Over the following years, VA created qualification standards for hiring counselors, but OPM proved resistant to requests for an occupational series and VA did not prioritize it. NBCC pursued legislation in 2016 with the aid of allies in Congress, including Sens. Tester and Moran, and the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
The creation of the occupational series was long coming. This major development will improve services for veterans and lead to better counselor representation throughout the federal workforce. NBCC thanks Sens. Tester and Moran, as well as all NCCs who have contacted their senators over the years to support the creation of the occupational series.