Congress Passes Bill to Include Counselors in VA Programs
Inclusion of mental health counselors as providers at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA), a top policy goal for the American Mental Health Counselors Association (AMHCA) and the American Counseling Association (ACA), passed both the U.S. House and Senate during the waning hours of the 109th Congress. The provision, included in S. 3421, the Veterans Benefits, Healthcare, and Information Act, opens up the VA health care system to mental health counselors, increasing access to care for veterans. S. 3421 now goes to President Bush to be signed into law.
The bill, which passed the House by voice vote and the Senate under unanimous consent, includes the AMHCA and ACA provision to add mental health counselors to the list of appointed positions within the Veterans Healthcare Administration (VHA). The provision would also delineate the qualifications mental health counselors would need to be appointed to a position in the VHA.
Currently, the VA cannot hire mental health counselors at the same pay grade as clinical social workers, nor can mental health counselors apply for supervisory positions open to clinical social workers and others. Partially as a result, the VA is the largest employer of social workers in the United States, and the VA employs very few mental health counselors on a full-time basis.
The AMHCA and ACA supported provision will allow mental health counselors to be eligible for better paying jobs with a greater potential for promotion at the VA. Currently, licensed mental health counselors do not have a federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) General Schedule (GS) occupational classification, which is necessary for a counselor to be employed by the U.S. Government. With enactment of the provision, OPM will be required to create an occupational classification for mental health counselors.
Among S. 3421’s other provisions, is authorization of an additional $180 million for the provision of readjustment counseling and related mental health services provided at VA Vet Centers. The bill also adds funding to increase the number of clinicians, including mental health counselors, treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and authorizes an additional $2 million for VA community based outpatient clinics to support the provision of mental health services. Finally, the bill expands access to bereavement counseling for immediate family members as a service to be offered at Vet Centers when a servicemember dies on active duty.
The counselor language that was included in S. 3421 was taken from S. 1182, a bill passed by the Senate in December of 2005. AMHCA and ACA worked with two of its members, Carla Hattan, president of the Kansas Mental Health Counselors Association (KMHCA) and Bill Davis, a mental health counselor in the state, to get comparable counselor legislation introduced in the House. In May 2006, ACA and AMHCA achieved this goal when Rep. Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Rep. Michael Michaud (D-ME) introduced the “Veterans Mental Health Care Access Improvement Act of 2006” (H.R. 5396). Movement on the legislation seemed to have stalled in the Fall of 2006, until the House’s action on the final legislative day of the 109th Congress.
AMHCA and ACA would like to thank the Chairman (Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID)) and Ranking Member (Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-HI)) of the Senate VA Committee as well as Reps. Moran and Michaud from the House VA Committee for ensuring that the LPC provision was included in the final version of the bill. Finally, AMHCA and ACA would like to thank each of its members who advocated for passage of this legislation. The result shows that grassroots advocacy, coupled with cooperation from state chapters and the efforts of federal lobbyists, can achieve legislative victories for the counseling profession.
For more information, please contact Beth Powell at AMHCA at 800-326-2642, ext. 105 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or Brian Altman with ACA at 800-348-6647, ext. 242.