VA Ignored Lawmakers’ Requests to Hire Counselors to Reduce Wait Times

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) ignored congressional calls for the hiring of more mental health counselors to reduce VA wait times, hiring fewer than 200 mental health counselors nationwide and shutting counselors out of training service for VA mental health clinicians, according to a top counselors group.

“We have been fighting the VA [for years] to get more counselors hired, but can’t due to a number of what we feel are self-imposed barriers that the VA has created,” Art Terrazas, government affairs director at the American Counseling Association, told The Daily Caller.

Terrazas stated definitively that “both” the Obama and Bush administrations knew about mental health staffing shortages and failed to act.

“We can’t get information out of the VA about how many of us are hired,” Terrazas said. “We know in the last few years less than 200. We’ve been asking for an exact count but never got it. We’ve tracked openings through USAjobs to find out how many jobs are available, but they’ve never given us an exact number.”

VA did not return a request for comment for this report as to how many mental health counselors it has hired since 2006.

Additionally, VA disallowed counselors from participating in the mental health clinician training program that educates 70 percent of psychologists, despite legislation from Republican North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr to integrate counselors into the training program.

The Obama administration’s Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) has yet to create an “occupational series” for the VA counselor profession, which would create codes and standards to make it much easier to hire counselors at VA. Multiple Capitol Hill lawmakers wrote letters to OPM and to VA itself asking why the occupational series for counselors has not been created, but they did not receive ample clarification.

In December 2006, Congress passed the omnibus Veterans Benefits, Health Care and Information Technology Act, which included legislation from then-Republican Rep. Jerry Moran authorizing VA to hire mental health professionals including family therapists and licensed professional mental health counselors. It was the first time that veterans could legally get access to counselors at VA clinics without having private insurance or being in active service.

But VA took five-and-a-half years overlapping two presidential administrations to even acknowledge the 2006 law.

By the time Obama-appointed former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki took office, he already had four VA inspector general reports waiting for him about the VA wait-times problem. Shinseki received seven more IG reports on the issue before April 19, 2012, when he finally announced that he was adding 1,900 new VA mental health staffers.

Shinseki’s announcement of the staff expansion came just four days before the release of a damning new IG report entitled “Review of Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care.” Insiders told TheDC that 1,500 mental health job vacancies already existed within VA at the time of Shinseki’s announcement.

“I was pleased to hear the VA announce its plans to hire 1,900 mental health workers,” Moran, by then a senator, said in an April 2012 hearing. “I was additionally pleased with the announcement yesterday that family therapists and licensed professional mental health counselors will be included in this hiring. My discouragement is how long it took for the VA to implement this.”

But VA hired hardly any mental health counselors, despite Shinseki’s announcement.

“VHA did not have an effective staffing methodology to ensure appropriate staffing levels for specialty care services,” according to a 2012 IG report. “Specifically, VHA did not establish productivity standards for all specialties and VA medical facility management did not develop staffing plans.” VA did not perform to median in the psychiatry field, according to the report.

“We can’t get a reason from VA about why they’re not utilizing us,” Terrazas said. “It’s about 18 to 22 veterans we lose a day to suicide. How many of those veterans are waiting  for care?”

Follow Patrick on Twitter