Union concerned about VA’s ability to expand access to mental health care

“The VA must make meaningful changes in eradicating agency mismanagement," AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said in a st “The VA must make meaningful changes in eradicating agency mismanagement," AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said in a st AFGE photo

A labor union representing Veterans Affairs Department mental health professionals has expressed doubt that VA can deliver on an Aug. 31 executive order from President Obama aimed at expanding access to care for veterans, military members and their families.

The American Federation of Government Employees in a recent statement expressed concern over VA’s ability to enhance its mental health offerings “in view of the department’s continued harassment of employees who speak up for patients’ needs.”

In particular, the union is concerned by VA managers’ alleged retaliatory actions against a post-traumatic stress disorder specialist who testified before Congress about mental health care mismanagement at the department and understaffing. Officials allegedly downgraded her performance evaluation on the eve of her testimony, changing her job duties and forcing veterans to travel farther for care. “Additionally, her fellow union members have faced adverse actions as part of what appears to be a coordinated pattern of retaliation for bringing to light mismanagement at the VA,” AFGE stated.

The union wrote to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki seeking reversal of the retaliatory actions against the PTSD specialist.

“The VA must make meaningful changes in eradicating agency mismanagement, whistleblower retaliation and take strides in supporting its workforce providing world-class care to our nation's veterans," AFGE National VA Council President Alma Lee said in a statement. “The president’s executive order looks to increase the number of mental health care professionals at the VA, but this cannot be done if the agency continues down this path of employee intimidation and misappropriation of vital resources.”

VA said it does not support retaliation against whistleblowers. “The Department of Veterans Affairs is strongly committed to ensuring that VA employees are empowered to advocate for veterans without fear of retaliation,” the department said in a statement. “VA respects the AFGE and the congressional hearing process and cooperates fully when VA employees are asked to testify.”

The executive order directed federal agencies to expand suicide prevention programs, as well as mental health care. Under the directive, VA must hire 800 additional support counselors who are veterans. It also must use its pay-setting authorities, loan repayment and other incentives to meet its goal of recruiting, hiring and placing 1,600 mental health care professionals by June 30, 2013.

The number of veterans receiving mental health services has increased by 35 percent since 2007, according to VA, and the number of mental health staff has increased by 41 percent.

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