Counselor Employment in the Department of Veterans Affairs

NBCC has advocated for increased recognition and hiring 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. NBCC continued its advocacy on this issue, leading 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 system.

As troops return home from what are sometimes multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for qualified counselors to care for veterans suffering from the invisible wounds of war will only increase. Such invisible injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), are the signature wounds of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. NBCC believes that all veterans and their families suffering with mental health issues deserve the best care possible, and is determined to help the VA fill new and existing openings with dedicated and well-qualified professional counselors.

GR Updates Regarding VA
Fall 2013 Update

On June 13, Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) introduced S. 1155, which includes a provision requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to add licensed professional mental health counselors (LPMHCs) and marriage and family therapists (MFTs) as participating professions in the VA’s flagship recruitment program—the VA Office of Academic Affiliations’ Health Professionals Trainee Program.

Sen. Tester noted: “LPMHCs and MFTs comprise 40 percent of the overall independent practice behavioral health workforce, often practicing in rural and underserved areas that lack other mental health providers. However, the VA employs fewer than 200 of these professionals among a behavioral health workforce of over 23,000. Compounding this underutilization of these critical professions is their current exclusion from the VA Health Professionals Training Program.”

In an article on the legislation, Montana newspaper Missoulian quotes Dr. Thomas Clawson, president of the National Board of Certified Counselors, as saying: “This legislation is critical to ensuring the best care for our veterans, particularly mental health care. By expanding the VA training program, the bill ensures an adequate mental health workforce for the growing veteran population.”

NBCC and our coalition partners have been lobbying for support of the legislation. On July 31, Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK) signed on as a cosponsor. Support has been expressed from the House of Representatives and a companion bill to S. 1155 is scheduled for introduction in early November.

In addition to pursuing legislative strategies, NBCC is keeping pressure on the VA to adopt internal policies encouraging counselor employment. Several congressional offices submitted questions for the record to the VA seeking an update on employment numbers and steps the VA is taking to increase available positions.

Furthermore, at the urging of NBCC, a call for nominations was put out in October by the LPMHC Professional Standards Board (PSB). The purpose of the call is to replace current PSB members with LPMHCs. Because of VA policy, the initial board was comprised of professionals predominantly from other disciplines (such as social workers and psychologists). Now that the PSB has been in place for two years, there are an adequate number of LPMHCs with the requisite experience to fill the positions.

VA Trainee Support 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.

April 2012 VA Hiring Announcement

On April 19, 2012, the VA announced a hiring initiative to add 1,600 mental health professionals to its existing workforce. NBCC promptly volunteered to disseminate information on the initiative and assist with vacancies in hard-to-fill positions by reaching out to National Certified Counselors (NCCs). As part of an existing commitment to the White House Joining Forces initiative, NBCC has pledged to work with Joining Forces and the VA to fill these new positions. This involvement is a natural continuation of NBCC’s advocacy for counselor hiring by the VA.

A subsequent announcement highlights the inclusion of professional counselors and marriage and family therapists (MFTs) in the hiring initiative. “The addition of these two mental health professions is an important part of VA’s mission to expand access to mental health services,” says Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki, in the April 24 press release.

To view available positions and learn more about the VA hiring initiative, click on the VA Mental Health banner on this page or visit the US Department of Veterans Affairs mental health Web page. Note that the “Licensed Professional Counselors” link on the right-hand side of the VA page includes all GS-101 series positions, not just LPMHC jobs. The VA has indicated that it cannot further refine without eliminating available positions. Thus, licensed counselors may not be eligible for all of the positions listed.

Questions regarding qualification requirements or other aspects of a position should be directed to the VA contact person listed in the corresponding job announcement.

March 2012 News Update

NBCC and a coalition of counseling and marriage and family therapy (MFT) organizations submitted a letter to VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Robert Petzel, stating strong concerns about the pace of hiring throughout the VA and exclusion of counselors and MFTs from the funded VA trainee support program. Dr. Petzel’s response letter stated that the VA recognizes the value of counselors and is creating professional standards boards for counselors, but will not be adding the profession to the trainee support program. The coalition intends to continue pushing Congress to include counselors and MFTs in the trainee program.

Winter Update 2012

On November 15, 2011, the coalition of counseling and MFT organizations met with Dr. Robert Zeiss from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Academic Affiliations. The meeting was to discuss inclusion of counselors and MFTs in the VA trainee support program that provides funding for associated health professions serving in VA facilities. Neither counselors nor MFTs are currently eligible to participate in the funded program.

The meeting was informative and provided background on the program and process. The VA confirmed that counselors and MFTs are eligible for unpaid internships in VA facilities, but are not eligible for trainee funds. The trainee funds are limited to certain professions, including psychology and social work. While the organizations urged a change in policy to include the two disciplines, the VA declined to take that step, citing a lack of funding and limited demand for counselors and MFTs. The coalition was dissatisfied with the VA response and will be seeking congressional support for a change in policy.

The coalition also met with Dr. Madhulika Agarwal, the deputy undersecretary for health for health policy and services, on November 29. Discussion was focused on three issues: utilization of counselors and MFTs in the Readjustment Counseling Service that oversees vet centers, the slow pace of hiring, and the VA trainee support program. The coalition will maintain communication with Dr. Agarwal to address these ongoing issues.

Fall Update 2011

On August 22, 2011, NBCC staff participated in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Mental Health Services (OMHS) stakeholders meeting. The meeting brings together representatives from veteran service organizations, consumer groups, professional associations and VA staff to share information about the VA mental health system. The meeting provided an informal forum to discuss issues of interest to the VA and represented organizations, including integration of counselors and MFTs.

On the following day, August 23, NBCC attended the VA national mental health conference, entitled “Improving Veterans Mental Health Care for the 21st Century.” The conference provided information about the ongoing transformation and improvement in veterans mental health care, including discussions on the mental health initiative research-informed practices, clinical innovations, and educational efforts for networks, local medical centers, clinics and the community. Participants included more than 1,000 clinicians, educators and researchers from VA facilities. NBCC, the American Counseling Association (ACA) and the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) were granted space to provide information to conference participants about the two professions in an effort to increase education and hiring.

The two meetings afforded NBCC and its coalition allies the opportunity to discuss the slow pace of hiring counselors within the veterans health system. NBCC shared concerns about the limited job vacancies for the profession and the fact that most positions were in vet centers and not medical centers. NBCC organized a productive coalition meeting with Dr. Mary Schohn, the newly promoted director of mental health operations, to discuss ways to accelerate the integration of counselors and MFTs into the VA. NBCC also worked with VA Director of Program Policy Implementation Stacey Pollack on revising the new solicitation for representatives on the National Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselor Professional Standards Board (NLPC-PSB). Counselors working for the VA OMHS are encouraged to contact NBCC if they would be interested in serving on the NLPC-PSB.

Spring Update 2011

NBCC and the American Counseling Association (ACA) met with senior mental health staff from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on May 2 to discuss the implementation of the new qualification standards and employment of counselors. Monitoring of jobs has demonstrated that counselors are only slowly being hired into the VA system, and the objective was to identify deficiencies and streamline the process.

The VA staff was unaware of the slow pace of implementation and was attentive to our concerns about specific problems. They agreed to increase education of VA mental health staff about hiring policies and to ensure counselors were being appropriately considered for positions. The VA also offered to facilitate information sharing between the organizations and administration mental health staff. NBCC will continue to monitor the process and work with the VA to address concerns and opportunities. NCCs who are interested in job opportunities with the VA are encouraged to reach out to local facilities and educate staff about the counseling profession and the new qualification standards. NCCs who apply for jobs should report any problems, or successes, to NBCC.

July 2010

Implementation of the law making counselors eligible for employment in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is reportedly on track for completion in September 2010. While no official documentation has been provided, VA staff has indicated that the internal subject matter expert workgroup has completed its first draft of the qualification standards and it is being reviewed internally. There are multiple stages in the review process, including negotiations with the unions. It has also been reported that the draft standards allow for independent practice on par with other master’s-level mental health professionals. It is impossible to confirm the accuracy of these reports without written documentation, but NBCC remains cautiously optimistic.

Fall 2009

NBCC is continuing to press for implementation of P.L. 109-461, which authorizes the employment of professional counselors by the Veterans Administration. On September 24, 2009, NBCC participated in a meeting with John Sepulveda, the assistant secretary for human resources and administration for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and numerous staff to discuss the status of this issue. The meeting was called and attended by congressional staff from the majority and minority side of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Representatives from ACA, AMHCA, AAMFT and CAMFT also participated in the meeting.

The meeting provided insight into the timing and process for implementation of the law. Assistant Secretary Sepulveda and his personnel responded to questions by congressional staff and coalition representatives about what’s been happening and what needs to happen. While there was some frustration about the pace and direction of the activities to date, Mr. Sepulveda offered commitments to do better in the future. He offered a tentative deadline of September 2010 for completion of the process. Coalition participants were hoping for a more expeditious timeframe, but were pleased to get some detail and clarity. Coalition members also pressed to ensure separate qualification standards and creation of new Occupational Series by the Office of Personnel Management, which seemed to be accepted. While there are no guarantees that the VA will follow through on its commitments, the coalition at least has a framework for moving forward. The VA also promised greater collaboration with coalition members, which should help facilitate the process and increase accountability.

VA Creating Occupational Category for Counselors

Washington, Feb. 17 – The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has approved the creation of a new occupational category for Licensed Professional Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists.

VA staff notified the National Board for Certified Counselors, Inc., that the agency’s undersecretary for health signed off on the classification process, but it has not been determined whether each profession will get an individual classification or a shared one.

NBCC has been unyielding in its efforts to implement the 2006 law recognizing counselors in the VA. Proper implementation requires the creation of a federal occupational classification for mental health counselors by the Office of Personnel Management.

An NBCC statement said the organization was pleased with “this step forward,” but remains vigilant in our pursuit of a separate classification.

“NBCC acted independently by meeting with senators, representatives and committee staff on over 50 occasions,” the statement said. “We believe that consistent pressure from a counseling organization was a key factor in keeping the issue alive and before policy makers.”

The statement added the process for establishing qualification standards may take a year to complete, but “the VA has at least provided a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The statement noted help from former VA Chief Network Officer Dr. Jule Moravec and from David Gorman, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans. It also expressed appreciation for separate advocacy efforts on the issue by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, and the American Mental Health Counselors Association.

Congress Hears NBCC Call for VA Hiring of Mental Health Counselors

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) is calling for the Veterans Administration to implement a new law designed to deal with the mental health care crisis facing American veterans.

Kristi McCaskill, counseling advocacy coordinator for the Greensboro-based organization, presented the case for hiring counselors in testimony prepared for the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Capitol Hill Thursday (Oct. 18).

For the hearing titled “Health Care Profeessionals – Recruitment and Retention”, McCaskill cited a presidential task force study that estimated a fourth of all veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq have suffered psychological injuries.

However, she said, the study also found the number of licensed clinical psychologists serving service men and women has fallen 22 percent. This has left 1,839 VA psychologists available for 24.3 million veterans from previous wars plus the growing number from current conflicts.

McCaskill said NBCC is ready to help establish “a mechanism to allow licensed counselors to serve veterans who not only have given of themselves to protect our country, but who now need our help.”

“NBCC is prepared and capable of connecting licensed counselors with the VA so that together we can provide for the increasing mental health needs of veterans,” McCaskill said.

But first, she said, the VA must create a formal job classification for counselors so they can be hired in compliance with federal employment requirements. A law authorizing VA employment of counselors passed last December but has never been implemented.

More than 42,000 counselors in the United States hold NBCC certification. The voluntary credential signifies that the counselor has demonstrated mastery of the skills and knowledge needed at the highest levels of the profession.

Media contact: Ross Harris (336) 908-7171

Congressional Letter Criticizes VA Delays in Hiring Mental Health Counselors

WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of House and Senate members wants the Veterans Administration to explain delays in implementation of a law requiring the credentialing and employment of mental health counselors by that agency. NBCC spearheaded the effort to build interest and support for the letter.

The 2006 legislation (pl 109-461) was intended to help the VA meet a growing demand for mental health services to veterans. In a letter dated Oct. 7 to VA Secretary James Peake, two senators and four congressmen raised questions about his agency’s implementation of the law, citing “the delays and seeming misdirection it has taken.”

The law ordered the VA to create a new job classification specifically for mental health counselors within the list of professions approved by the federal Office of Personnel Management. The letter accused the VA of resisting the will of Congress while preserving “the status quo, which has resulted in counselors not being able to provide clinical services to our veterans.”

As an example, the letter cited a VA survey of veterans’ centers and mental health facilities asking about the need for counselors, in effect ignoring the congressional mandate to hire more of them.

“We want to see the VA move expeditiously to implement the law and begin employing counselors in independent clinical positions," the letter said. “We believe the employment of mental health counselors will be a positive step towards ensuring our nation’s bravest are provided the care that they so justly deserve.”

The letter was signed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR), Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI), Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-MN), Rep. Zachary Space (D-OH), and Rep. David Hobson (R-OH).

The National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), based in Greensboro, NC, has been active in drawing attention to the VA’s response to the law.

Nearly a year ago, Kristi McCaskill, NBCC’s counseling advocacy coordinator, testified before a House subcommittee on the VA’s inaction regarding the law. Since then, NBCC has been working closely with members of Congress to ensure that the VA understands the intent of Congress and implements the law accordingly.

More than 42,000 counselors in the United States hold NBCC certification. The voluntary credential signifies that the counselor has demonstrated mastery of the skills and knowledge needed at the highest levels of the profession.