More than 130 counselors attending the American Counseling Association Institute for Leadership Training took a day out of their schedules on July 27 to lobby their senators and representatives on Capitol Hill. Direct constituent contact is the most effective way of reaching lawmakers, and the lobbying day has become a standard part of the annual leadership institute.

Attendees talked to members of Congress about three of ACA’s major policy priorities: increasing the Veterans Health Administration’s rate of hiring counselors, continuing funding for the Elementary and Secondary School Counseling Program (ESSCP) within the U.S. Department of Education and establishing Medicare coverage of licensed professional counselors. Visits were held with members of Congress representing 38 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

In the August issue of Counseling Today, we reprinted the letter that Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine), the ranking Democratic member on the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health, sent to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) urging broader recognition of counselors. In their lobbying visits, leadership institute attendees asked their senators and representatives to push the VA to take concrete steps, such as those outlined in Michaud’s letter, to bring more counselors into the agency. Several attendees reported that their members of Congress voiced concern about the VA’s lack of counselor hiring and expressed interest in writing to ask that the VA address the issue. ACA staff will follow up with these offices to help in this work.

VA hiring of counselors has come to a virtual standstill. In the four weeks following an April press release saying that the VA was going to begin hiring counselors and marriage and family therapists, 35 licensed professional mental health counselor (LPMHC) positions with the VA were posted on the website (in comparison, 323 social worker positions were advertised). In the subsequent two months, however, a grand total of six LPMHC positions were posted — an average of less than one job posting per week. VA facilities appear once again to be leaving LPMHCs out of their hiring plans.

On the topic of ESSCP, attendees asked their senators and representatives to support funding the program at $52.296 million for Fiscal Year 2013. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate are working on appropriations bills for FY 2013, and the legislation the Senate Appropriations Committee approved maintains the $52.296 million funding level. Unfortunately, the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education spending bill approved July 18 would eliminate ESSCP and several other “ineffective, unnecessary or lower-priority programs,” as the House Appropriations Committee press release described them.

But ESSCP is effective. The most recent detailed data from schools receiving ESSCP grants showed that, on average, they experienced a 30 percent reduction in disciplinary referral rates after implementing their grant program. The program is also necessary because many school districts nationwide are cutting back on school counseling staff and programs as a result of ongoing budget pressures. Counselors making lobbying visits on behalf of continued federal investment in school counseling services emphasized that school counselors play a unique — and vitally important — role by working at the crucial intersection of academics, college and career readiness, and mental health and well-being.

House and Senate members are already discussing a stopgap spending measure to fund government agencies beyond the start of the federal fiscal year on Oct. 1 because none of the 13 annual spending bills will be enacted by then. Senate Democrats want to abide by the overall discretionary spending levels for FY 2013 that were agreed to in last year’s Budget Control Act, which resolved the debt-ceiling crisis; some House Republicans want to scrap that funding level and reduce discretionary spending by another $19 billion. Looming over all FY 2013 appropriations figures is the potential for an across-the-board cut of 7.8 percent, to be applied Jan. 2 if Congress and President Barack Obama can’t reach agreement on a collection of tax increases and spending cuts to reduce the deficit by $1.2 trillion.

On Medicare, attendees asked their senators to co-sponsor legislation establishing coverage of counselors (S. 604, the Seniors Mental Health Access Improvement Act) and asked their representatives to consider sponsoring a House counterpart measure. Health policy research shows that establishing Medicare coverage of counselors likely would save more money than it costs to implement. More than half of Medicare spending is on the sickest 10 percent of beneficiaries, and studies show that individuals with both a chronic medical condition (such as diabetes or congestive heart failure) and a comorbid depressive disorder are much more expensive to treat than those without depression. Expanding access to outpatient mental health services can more than pay for itself with even a tiny reduction in costs for beneficiaries with depression and a comorbid medical condition.

ACA continues to push for Congress to include Medicare coverage of counselors in a year-end package to protect physicians’ payment rates. Congress is expected to take up this package in November or December after the 2012 general election. For more information, contact Scott Barstow at