Veterans applying for Department of Veterans Affairs jobs are routinely grilled about whether their combat experience makes them mentally unstable, despite a long-standing federal personnel policy that bars such inquiries.
Rules prohibiting employment-related questions about a veteran’s treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder went into government-wide effect eight years ago, but the VA avoids the change by using a 20-year-old form for its background checks.
The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) directed all agencies in 2008 to exempt combat-related therapy from background screenings into a federal job candidate’s mental health.
It noted that the Department of Defense (DoD) had already done this on its own and advocated for the policy to become government-wide as not to punish people for serving their country.
“In the last seven years, have you consulted with a health care professional regarding an emotional or mental health condition or were you hospitalized for such a condition?” the background check form asks. The 2008 OPM directive ordered agencies to add language saying to answer “no” if the treatment was “strictly related to adjustments from service in a military combat environment.”
The change “was necessitated by DoD study demonstrating that persons returning from combat often have war-related anxieties, depression and post-traumatic stress (PTSD). Many do not seek treatment out of concern for their career,” OPM wrote. “The need to encourage treatment remains necessary regardless of the federal government assignment, and the need for standardized response to SF86 questions is necessary to ensure reciprocity.”
The directive was centered upon Standard Form 86, a form used for employees dealing with highly sensitive matters. The same change was made government-wide to a less-stringent form for federal employees who deal with only “moderate risk,” the SF-85PS.
At the VA, since the department doesn’t deal with top-secret national security, the SF-85PS is the relevant form for employees whose jobs are moderately sensitive.
But more than eight years after the OPM guidance, the VA still has prospective hires fill out a form called VA SF85PS Revised September 1995. Its language requires veterans who sought treatment for PTSD to disclose it in a section designed to reveal mental instability.
The outdated question in the VA’s hiring process persists even as VA spends millions of dollars a year paying for campaigns to de-stigmatize PTSD and promote the hiring of veterans in the private sector, the federal government, and the VA itself.
“This is an optional form and not used for most positions within VA,” Randy Noller, a spokesman for the VA, said in an email. “During upcoming policy changes, the VA will be re-evaluating the continued use of this optional form.”
He did not say why the VA wasn’t using the SF-85PS that OPM established government-wide seven years ago, and which is available widely.
Eliminating the use of the form entirely rather than simply adopting OPM’s version would lower the standards for non-veteran VA employees with high-level jobs, as the form asks about other issues, like drug and alcohol problems, in addition to mental health. OPM’s revision merely clarifies that one question does not apply to veterans’ issues.
Gina Farrisee, the VA’s head of human resources and the official most directly responsible for managing the agency’s hiring processes, was recently promoted to deputy chief of staff in what appears to be an effort to “burrow”– when a political appointee moves to a permanent career job at or near the end of an out-going president’s tenure.
Veterans say they feel excluded from jobs at the VA by a clubby atmosphere of lifelong bureaucrats, and they barely have a presence in the leadership of hospitals.
A union contract gives current civil servants first dibs at jobs, and a VA manager said in sworn testimony, “thank God” he did not have to hire vets. VA employees told the Government Accountability Office that they did not get along with veterans they worked with, and the military’s opinion of VA workers’ qualifications is so low that the Navy would not allow its sailors to be treated in an intensive care unit staffed by them.
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