Biden administration to streamline hiring of mental health professionals at VA after bipartisan pressure from Tester, Moran

Senators led bipartisan talks urging the Office of Personnel Management to finalize a professional series for licensed professional mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists in Virginia

After years of pressure from Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman John Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that the Office of Personnel Management ( OPM ) is finalizing two new professional series for licensed professional mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists in Virginia—a move that will help Virginia recruit and retain mental health providers in rural America.

“Ensuring stable and streamlined hiring of mental health providers is a key component in our continued drive to strengthen the VA workforce in rural states like Montana,” said Chairman Tester. “That’s why this change is so critical—it will establish a process to fill critical vacancies, retain qualified talent, and connect more people in hard-to-reach areas to the quality mental health care they need and have earned.”

“Licensed professional mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists help provide our veterans with the services and care they need.” said Ranking Member Moran. “After many years of advocating with my colleagues to change the way the VA hires this category of therapists, the VA plans to create a professional series that will help streamline the hiring process for these healthcare professionals. Through this change, veterans will have greater access to services provided by therapists and counselors through the VA.

The senators defended their bipartisanship Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act (Hannon Act)— landmark legislation to strengthen Virginia’s mental health workforce and increase rural veterans’ access to care. Signed into law in October 2020 Hannon’s law required VA and OPM to develop a professional series for licensed professional mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists at VA to provide more timely mental health care to veterans. The Occupational Series is an OPM classification that makes it easier for human resources professionals to post job openings and place qualified candidates in open positions. According to this new announcement, current employees will be transitioned to the new occupational series no later than January 9, 2023. The new occupational series will also be used to support the Department’s mental health recruitment efforts.

For years, Tester and Moran have led the call to streamline the hiring of mental health professionals to fill critical mental health vacancies in Virginia. In 2017, senators led the charge in calling for common-sense solutions to address the vacancies of then-OPM Acting Director Kathleen McGettigan. In June 2022, the senators called on both agencies of the Biden administration to “act expeditiously” to create a professional series for these positions.

“We applaud the bipartisan efforts of Senators Tester and Moran to have the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Personnel Management create a separate occupational series in federal employment for both marriage and family therapists and mental health counselors.” said Executive Director Joy Alafia of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Executive Director Tracy Todd. “Through this action, the federal government recognizes the important role these professions play in providing much-needed mental health services to our men and women of honor.”

“Establishing new professional series for LPMHCs and MFTs will ensure VA can recruit and retain more mental health professionals to provide the high-quality care our nation’s veterans deserve.” said National Board of Certified Counselors President and CEO Dr. Kylie Dotson-Blake, NCC, LCMHC. “We applaud Senator Tester and Senator Moran for their dedication to ensuring access to care for veterans and their years of work on this important issue.”

“Recruiting and retaining qualified mental health providers, including marriage and family therapists, is essential for VA to be able to provide high-quality health care and other social services to our nation’s veterans, especially those in rural areas — as in my home state of Montana – where these types of professionals are often in short supply,” said Disabled American Veterans National Commander Joe Parsetich. “DAV is pleased to learn of the creation of a new professional series specific to these types of counselors and therapists within the next 90 days. This development is an important step in improving the Department’s recruiting capabilities as it works to modernize to better meet the evolving needs of our nation’s veterans. We applaud Chairman Tester and Ranking Member Moran for their leadership and efforts to ensure a sufficient mental health workforce and improved access to care for rural veterans.”

“Access to mental health services in Montana is significantly impacted by a limited workforce. A bipartisan effort by Senators Tester and Moran to urge the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Personnel Management to establish a professional series for licensed professional mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists in Virginia will increase access for veterans,” said Mental Health America of Montana Executive Director Shellie Aune, along with the board. “Mental Health America of Montana supports this change, which will help retain and recruit mental health counselors in Montana and thus help more veterans access mental health care.”

“We’ve been looking forward to this news for months,” said Northwest Montana Veterans Coalition President Michael Shepard. “At the Veterans Coalition of Northwest Montana, we teach a proactive course to identify trends in veterans for possible suicide prevention. But without adequate VA mental health staffing, our efforts only go so far. We appreciate Senator Tester’s efforts and are optimistic that this change will prevent more veterans from falling through the cracks.”

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