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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the federal department that provides benefits for U.S. veterans, including mental health care. Until recently, the VA did not recognize or employ professional counselors to provide care to our nation’s veterans.
NBCC has advocated for increased recognition and hiring of professional counselors by the VA for years, efforts that resulted in passage of a law in 2006 adding licensed professional mental health counselors (LPMHCs) to the list of professions eligible for VA employment. NBCC continued its backing on this issue, leading to the VA’s release of qualification standards in December 2010, allowing for the hiring of LPMHCs to begin.
However, barriers remain to counselor employment in the VA, which continues to hire counselors in much lower numbers than other mental health professions. One such obstacle is the VA’s exclusion of counselors from the Health Professionals Trainee Program, the VA’s flagship recruitment program. NBCC has continued to work with the VA to further integrate the counseling profession into the VA health care system and increase hiring.
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.
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 veteran 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.
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 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, it took until 2015 for counselors to be added to the program. However, counselor participation severely lags behind the other professions, and NBCC is pursuing legislation to increase access to the profession.
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