Once again, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is in the news. Several media outlets are covering the scandal, which includes allegations that VA staff falsified data to create the appearance that veterans were receiving timely appointments at VA medical facilities. In some cases, not only did senior, regional and local VA leaders know these practices were occurring, evidence suggests they may have helped to orchestrate and cover up the scheme. CNN revealed that “at least 40 veterans died waiting for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Health Care System.” If true, this is the clearest example yet of systemic problems in the VA.
It is past time for a serious overhaul of the nation’s largest health care system. A flawed VA has resulted in a dangerous internal culture that seems to value the reputations of bureaucratic leaders above the lives of our veterans. Real policy reforms must be implemented by the VA that will increase the number of health professionals in the VA system and provide veterans with better access to both mental and physical health care.
Every 65 minutes, our nation loses a veteran to suicide. But by the VA’s own data from October 2013, there are only 83 Licensed Professional Counselors in the system. While that number has risen from past years, it remains far too low to meet the needs of thousands of returning veterans. Congress recognized the important role that licensed counselors need to play in providing our veterans with the essential care they need. That is why they worked with the American Counseling Association in 2006 to empower the VA to hire counselors within the VA. But sadly, Congress has to this point been completely ignored.
The American Counseling Association has proposed a range of reforms, including fully incorporating counselors into the VA’s trainee program. By collaborating with the American Counseling Association to fill vacant positions and cross-posting job announcements to include the word “counselor,” the VA could identify many more LPCs eligible to apply for jobs. These simple, but proactive measures would result in more mental health clinicians being hired to serve our veterans. More lives might be saved.
The VA’s failure to provide timely access to health care is not a new issue. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., pointed out that inspector general reports from 2005, 2007 and 2012 showed the VA was not following its own policy when it came to scheduling appointments. In the 2012 report, the inspector general even stated that “VHA’s Mental Health performance data is not accurate or reliable” when it came to determining if veterans were receiving timely access to mental health providers.
For the American Counseling Association, these continuing problems strike us to the core because we represent professionals who are trained to help. The two signature wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan are the “invisible wounds” of the mind and the catastrophic physical wounds that require extensive care and rehabilitation. The VA has the authority, but lacks the motivation, to make administrative policy changes that would empower local VA caregivers to be more responsive to the evolving wounds of war. The Licensed Professional Counselors we represent are expertly trained to assist and work in both of these fields but they need to be allowed into the system.
The American Counseling Association regularly receives reports from members claiming local VA personnel are unaware that counselors can be hired by the VA. Other members say local VA personnel simply will not hire counselors. Based on these allegations, it is clear the VA may have no real standard operating procedure. Local VA staff seem to operate with impunity, as if no one will ever hold them accountable for their actions.
The VA, the administration and Congress have some difficult situations to face and some difficult decisions to make. Among them: Will they finally force the VA to implement aggressive measures such as hiring LPCs to shore up mental health services? Will the VA implement a plan to ensure that its local leaders are adhering to federal laws and finally putting the care of our veterans first?
As a society, we cannot ignore the grim reality that our veterans are surviving the battlefield only to die at home from neglect.
Art Terrazas is the director of government affairs at the American Counseling Association. He previously served as a legislative assistant in on Capitol Hill focusing on veterans’ and military issues.