Eligible veterans in parts of Arizona, California, Minnesota and elsewhere will have better access to professional counseling services next year at three new Department of Veterans Affairs-managed centers, VA officials announced Friday.
The VA plans to open new facilities -- called Vet Centers -- geared toward providing therapy and readjustment counseling in Sierra Vista, Arizona; Solano County, California; and St. Cloud, Minnesota, in early 2024.
Six satellite stations also will be established or expanded into full-service Vet Centers in Vineland, New Jersey; Clarksville, Tennessee; Fredericksburg and Leesburg, Virginia; the U.S. Virgin Islands; and the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. commonwealth.
Vet Centers offer an array of services such as counseling on military-related issues and trauma, bereavement and readjustment; substance abuse assessments; and referrals and screenings for mental health conditions for veterans who meet the eligibility criteria.
According to Michael Fisher, chief readjustment counseling officer for the Vet Centers at the Veterans Health Administration, the new and expanded locations were chosen for a projected need in those areas as veterans transition out of the military, relocate or seek assistance.
Fisher could not say how many people will be served by these facilities, but 115,000 veterans, active-duty service members and family members received counseling at the 300 Vet Centers nationwide in fiscal 2023.
"What's important is that we're going out and being able to increase our outreach in those communities ... and then from there, increase access to services," Fisher said in a call with reporters Thursday.
The brick-and-mortar Vet Centers and another 83 mobile clinics provide nonmedical counseling, therapy and services to active-duty personnel, veterans and their families.
The eligibility criteria to receive assistance at a Vet Center differs from the requirements to access VA health care. To be seen at a Vet Center, active-duty troops or veterans must have:
- Deployed to a combat theater or hostile region
- Provided mortuary services or medical care to casualties
- Been sexually assaulted while on active duty
- Served on an unmanned aerial vehicle team performing combat operations
- Responded to a national emergency or disaster as declared by the president
- Performed drug interdictions as a member of the Coast Guard
- Served as a drilling reservist with a military-related mental health condition
- Be receiving educational assistance benefits from the VA and need readjustment counseling.
Vet Centers were established in 1979 to assist veterans who served in the Vietnam War. They will operate on a budget of $353 million in fiscal 2024.
"Vet Centers provide veterans with high-quality counseling, community engagement, and referral services in nearby and comfortable environments," VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said in a statement.
Services provided at Vet Centers are confidential, meaning that the center will release information to other organizations, including VA medical centers, only with permission from the veteran. The only exceptions are in cases where the veteran is considered a threat to themselves or others.
"Our staff are mandated reporters. At that point, once we get into a crisis situation, it's really about getting that veteran or service member the level of care they need to be able to stop whatever that situation is," Fisher explained.
A Government Accountability Office report published last year found that the most sought-after service at Vet Centers in fiscal 2021 was counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, accounting for 73% of all counseling needs, followed by marital counseling, at 26%.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.