Biden Administration to Streamline VA Hiring of Mental Health Care Professionals Following Bipartisan Push from Tester, Moran
Senators led bipartisan calls urging Office of Personnel Management to finalize an occupational series for Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists at VA
Following a years-long push from Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester(D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is finalizing two new occupational series for Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists at VA—a move that will help VA recruit and retain mental health providers in rural America.
“Ensuring the steady and streamlined hiring of mental health providers is a key component in our continued push to strengthen VA’s workforce in rural states like Montana,” said Chairman Tester. “That’s why this change is so critical—it’ll establish a process to fill critical vacancies, retain qualified talent, and connect more folks in hard to reach areas with the quality mental health care they need and 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 for a change in the way VA hires this category of therapists, the VA plans to establish an occupational series which will help streamline the hiring process of these health care professionals. Through this change, veterans will have greater access to the services provided by therapists and counselors through the VA.”
The Senators championed their bipartisan Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act (Hannon Act)—a landmark law to bolster VA’s mental health workforce and increase rural veterans’ access to care. Signed into law in October 2020, the Hannon Act required VA and OPM to develop an occupational series for Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists at VA to deliver more timely mental health care to veterans. An occupational series is an OPM classification that makes it easier for Human Resources Specialists to post job vacancies and place qualified candidates in open positions. Under this new announcement, current employees will be transitioned onto the new occupational series no later than January 9, 2023. The new occupational series will also be used to aid the Department’s mental health care hiring efforts.
For years, Tester and Moran have been leading the call to streamline hiring of mental health care professionals to fill critical mental health vacancies at VA. In 2017, the Senators led the charge in calling for commonsense solutions to address staff vacancies to then-Acting OPM Director Kathleen McGettigan. In June 2022, the Senators called on both Agencies under the Biden Administration to “act with haste” to create an occupational series for these positions.
“We applaud Senators Tester and Moran’s bipartisan efforts to push the Department of Veteran Affairs and the Office of Personnel Management in creating 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 for Marriage and Family Therapists, and Executive Director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy Tracy Todd. “Through this action, the Federal government recognizes the important role these professions play in providing much needed mental health services to our honored service men and women.”
“The creation of the new Occupational Series for LPMHCs and MFTs will ensure VA is able to hire and retain more mental health professionals to provide the high-quality care our nation’s veterans deserve,” said National Board for Certified Counselors President and CEO Dr. Kylie Dotson-Blake PhD, NCC, LCMHC. “We applaud Sen. Tester and Sen. Moran for their dedication to ensuring access to care for veterans and their years of work on this important issue.”
“Hiring and retaining qualified mental health providers, including marriage and family therapists, is essential for the VA to be able to provide high-quality health care and other social services to our nation’s veterans, particularly those in rural areas—like in my home state of Montana—where there are often shortages of these types of professionals,” said Disabled American Veterans National Commander Joe Parsetich. “DAV is pleased to learn about the creation of a new occupational series specific to these types of counselors and therapists within the next 90 days. This development is an important step in enhancing 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. Senators Tester and Moran’s bipartisan efforts to push the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Personnel Management to establish an occupational series for Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors and Marriage and Family Therapists at VA will increase access for Veterans,” said Executive Director of Mental Health America of Montana Shellie Aune, in conjunction with the Board. “Mental Health America of Montana is supportive of this change that will assist with retention and recruitment of mental health counselors in Montana, and thereby help more veterans access mental health care.”
“We have been eagerly awaiting this news for months,” said President of the Veterans Coalition of Northwest Montana Michael Shepard. “At the Veterans Coalition of Northwest Montana, we teach a proactive course in identifying veteran tendencies for possible suicide prevention. But without adequate VA mental health care staff, our efforts only go so far. We appreciate Senator Tester’s efforts and are optimistic this change will prevent more veterans from falling through the cracks.”