(WASHINGTON) - Today, the American Federation of Government Employees and its National VA Council (NVAC) testified before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs at a hearing on the challenges veterans face when accessing mental health care services through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). AFGE supports an immediate investigation into these issues in order to best serve the needs of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. AFGE represents more than 205,000 VA employees, including nearly 120,000 Veterans Health Administration (VHA) employees providing direct services to veterans.
The testimony was delivered by Dr. Michelle Washington, union activist with AFGE Local 342 who also serves as coordinator of PTSD Services and Evidence Based Psychotherapy at the Wilmington VA Medical Center. In her testimony as a representative of the union, Dr. Washington outlined AFGE's concerns regarding staffing shortages, poor human resources practices and mismanagement within the agency. The lack of behavioral health providers has resulted in widespread failure to provide timely appointments, including specialized care where frequent sessions are critical, such as evidence-based psychotherapies.
Dr. Washington's commitment to veterans is deeply personal. "I come from a long line of veterans from past and current conflicts," said Washington. "Sadly, my own experiences confirm that my facility lacks adequate staff to allow me to treat patients on a timely basis in order to maximize the effectiveness of treatment."
Staffing shortages also extend to the clerical staff and other personnel who play a critical role in support of patient care through their experience in scheduling, records management and other support functions. The VA's failure to hire more medical support staff to back up its clinical staff interferes with providers' ability to focus on patient needs.
"AFGE strongly opposes VA's ongoing campaign to downgrade medical support personnel without a thorough analysis of the duties of impacted employees," stated NVAC President Alma Lee. "These frontline employees are extremely dedicated to serving our veterans and something must be done to remedy the ills they face at work on a daily basis."
Dr. Washington's testimony, on behalf of AFGE, also included reports from other health care professionals within the VA who are experiencing the same challenges related to mental health care access and wait times and the need for management to be held accountable for mismanagement of resources and violations of laws and regulations. "We cannot continue turn a blind eye to management's abuse of authority where they have engaged in wait list data manipulation, pressured providers to change appointments and retaliated against employees who use appropriate avenues to advocate for patient needs," said AFGE National Secretary-Treasurer J. David Cox.
AFGE and the NVAC are committed to working with the agency, Congress and other stakeholders to improve the delivery of mental health services for our veterans who have sacrificed for this country.