At Hearing, Tester Presses VA to Meet Veterans’ Mental Health Needs with Vet Centers

Chairman urged VA to ensure its hiring is keeping pace with Vet Center demand

(U.S. Senate) — During a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing yesterday, Chairman Jon Tester stressed the important role Vet Centers play in providing veterans, servicemembers, and their families critical mental health services close to home. Tester underscored the importance of these community-based centers in rural areas, where they serve as critical mental health access points for veterans.

“Vet Centers were established in recognition that many Vietnam-era veterans were experiencing readjustment challenges and were wary of, or geographically far from, VA medical centers,” said Tester. “As a result, Vet Centers offer veterans the option to receive confidential mental health care services, separate from VHA facilities…They also support a successful transition to [civilian] life by offering marriage and family counseling, and serving as a resource for other VA benefits and services.”

Highlighting the unique role Vet Centers can play in offering mental health care for veterans and their families outside of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Tester said, “One thing that has always appealed to me about Vet Centers is that…it’s more laid back, it’s much less structured, much more welcoming. Do you see that as being a priority for Vets Centers and do you encourage that kind of less structured atmosphere where people can let their hair down and talk to other veterans?”

“Yes, we do encourage that and I think that’s at the heart of what Vet Centers are,” said Michael Fisher, VA’s Chief Officer of the Readjustment Counseling Service at VHA. “A non-bureaucratic, no wrong door, come and begin that journey to set goals.”

Tester also questioned Fisher on how VA’s recent announcement that it exceeded its health care hiring goals and will continue to focus hiring on mental health care impacted Vet Center hiring. Fisher affirmed that VA’s continued hiring focus on mental health care will also extend to Vet Centers.

The Senator emphasized the need to ensure hiring keeps pace with Vet Center demand: “Due to recent efforts by this Committee, more veterans are eligible for services at Vet Centers than ever before. That’s why it’s critically important the Vet Center Program is delivering high-quality services to the veterans who utilize it.”

Tester championed provisions to bolster VA’s Vet Center workforce and expand the number of veterans eligible for Vet Center services through the Hannon Act and the Support The Resilience of Our Nation’s Great (STRONG) Veterans Act.

Vet Centers are community-based counseling centers that provide a wide-range of social and psychological services, including counseling to eligible veterans, servicemembers, National Guard and Reserve components and their families. There are more than 300 Vet Centers across the country, and Montana is home to four of these with locations in Billings, Great Falls, Kalispell, Missoula, and an Outstation in Helena.