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WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) – Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans’ Affairs and Related Agencies – yesterday questioned Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Dr. David Shulkin during a Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing about the VA’s ongoing efforts to hire more mental health and family counseling professionals to serve veterans, especially in rural communities, nationwide. Sen. Moran also inquired about the future of a program he observed during his visit to the Phoenix VA this month known as “Be Connected,” which involves peer-to-peer mentoring for veterans using the VA’s mental health hotline.

“For years now, I have worked to push the VA to hire more mental health professionals so that our nation’s heroes can have more access to the care they need,” said Sen. Moran. “September is Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month, and the number of veterans taking their own lives each year remains alarmingly high. While I am encouraged that Secretary Shulkin is committed to hiring more mental health professionals, I want to make certain that he prioritizes hiring in rural and underserved communities to provide critical services veterans need.”  

During his questioning of Sec. Shulkin, Sen. Moran followed up on a letter he sent with Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) last week asking the VA to create an occupational series for Licensed Professional Mental Health Counselors (LPMHCs) and Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs) in order to expedite the hiring process. Full text of the letter can be found here.

Sen. Moran also convened a hearing on April 27, 2017 before his Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations subcommittee on preventing veteran suicide. Full video and more information about that hearing can be found here.

Click here to watch yesterday’s hearing. Highlights can be found below:

Sen. Moran (:02): “Secretary, thank you for joining us this morning on a hugely significant and unfortunately so timely topic. First of all, I want to highlight the hearing that our appropriations subcommittee had in April on this topic. But I want to remind you, Mr. Secretary... about VA follow through on a commitment that was made at that hearing. It was committed by the VA that we would get monthly reports in regard to your efforts, the department’s efforts to comply with the Inspector General’s recommendations and failures at the VA in regard to suicide, and we have not received those reports on a monthly basis.”

Sen. Moran (1:00): “Let me then talk about another topic that Senator Tester and I have worked on. We’ve been trying for a long time, and in fact in 2010, now seven years ago, gave the VA the authority to hire marriage and family therapists and licensed professional mental health counselors. The results of that authority have not resulted in any significant hiring of either one of those professionals. I would guess Senator Tester and I are interested in this reason for the scarcity of professionals generally, but especially as you were indicating in rural communities. So we have sought and have provided congressional authority for the VA to hire. You indicate you’re in the process of hiring 1,000 additional professionals, but I would tell you that after seven years, those two categories only account for two percent of the mental health workforce at the Department of Veterans Affairs… Senator Tester and I have a letter to you in this regard that was sent to you just a few days ago…. Would you again commit to filling these positions with those professionals, something that has not happened? And if so, how many of those are going to be, what would your prediction be, would fit an MFT or an LPMHC and would you provide me with those numbers as you fill those positions? I assume there will be a priority given in regard to places that are hard to recruit professionals.”

Sen. Moran (2:47): “I also know that you have hiring authorities that are difficult. I don’t know what your expedited hiring authorities are. What are they? What do you have at your disposal? Do they apply to mental health professionals? What needs to happen to fix this problem? ... We discussed this topic with Dr. Stephanie Davis, who testified. She’s at the eastern part of our Kansas VISN. She testified before our appropriations subcommittee in April that jobs are posted at, where applications can linger for four or five months. People find other jobs in the meantime, and it becomes even more impossible to recruit and retain. We know that positions sit vacant for months or even years while providers go through the process of the federal hiring mechanism. What can you do to get that process expedited?”

Sen. Moran (4:03): “Finally, Mr. Secretary, I wanted to tell you that I was just earlier this month at the Phoenix VA, where I saw one of the pilot programs under the Clay Hunt Act called ‘Be Connected.’ I was impressed. What this is about is having those who’ve have similar circumstances, who have served our country, who are veterans themselves who’ve had PTSD and other problems, as the counselors for those who are calling the number. I’d be interested in knowing what the VA is doing to support ‘Be Connected’ and are there plans to expand that program elsewhere?”

Sec. Shulkin (4:49): “First of all, on the issue that you talked about us not providing timely follow up… that’s unacceptable. If we say we’re going to commit to something my expectation is that we commit to it. So I appreciate you letting me know about it. I can assure you my staff will be knowing about it. We will do better and that’s not the way I want the department run so we will make sure you get that. On the marriage and mental health counselors, I look forward to the letter. I am aware that we continually hear about VA’s strictness on our accreditation issue. This is particularly a training issue since there are two accreditation programs. We are committed to bringing on marriage and family therapists…. On the issue of hiring, look, it’s the single most challenging thing that I know of in VA. It shouldn’t be that hard to get people on board. In the Accountability Act that the chairman referred to that we passed together not too long ago, you gave direct hiring authority to medical center directors. That is really helpful to us. It allows us to skip over a lot of the red tape. I want that authority for all of our critical health professionals. I would urge us to work together on that. It’s just too hard to get people hired into the VA.”

Sen. Moran (6:26): “So do you have the authority under the Accountability Act to do what you need to do?”

Sec. Shulkin (6:29): “Only under medical center directors. So if we could work on expanding that, I’d love to target it for mental health… but we have other health needs as well. And on the ‘Be Connected’ program, peer support is something that we are really committed to. We think this works, particularly for veterans who understand what they’ve gone through. So thank you for your visit, thank you for mentioning that, and that’s something that we’re going full force on.”

Sen. Moran (6:56): “Do you have other plans for that program elsewhere?”

Sec. Shulkin (6:59): “Yes, we already have about 1,100 peer support counselors. Much of our Vet Center model is actually based on that model. We know it works and Vet Center growth has been continuing to go up each year.”

Chairman Isakson (7:13): “I know Dr. Shulkin wants to be sure we point out since the resident state of Senator Moran is Kansas that the third mental health hotline center is being set up in Topeka, Kansas, if I’m not mistaken.”

Sec. Shulkin (7:24): “You are absolutely correct.”

Sen. Moran (7:25): “We are delighted to have you.”


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