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Some mental health workers exempted from civilian furloughs

May. 14, 2013 - 05:35PM   |  
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Nearly 8,800 civilians working in the Defense Department’s medical community — including mental health specialists — will not have to take the mandatory 11-day furlough announced today by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

According to Hagel’s memo announcing the department’s furlough policy, more than 68,000 personnel will be exempt from furloughs, including employees responsible for “protecting the safety of life and property,” as well as shipyard workers, civilian mariners, school teachers and a small number who safeguard classified material.

This includes medical personnel needed “to maintain quality of care in 24/7 emergency rooms and other critical care areas” such as behavioral health, wounded warrior support and disability evaluation.

“Furloughing these employees would result in unacceptable care being provided and the department would incur increased costs for premium pay or Tricare,” Hagel wrote.

The number of medical personnel exempt in each service or command are: 1,418 in the Navy, “up to” 6,600 in the Army; 410 in the Air Force; 368 at Joint Task Force National Capital Region; and 5 at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Services. The exact number of mental health specialists exempt from furlough was unavailable.

Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho had lobbied to exempt mental health providers as well as those involved with disability evaluations or supporting injured or ill personnel.

The Defense Department has increased its number of mental health professionals, many of whom are civilians, from 6,590 in 2009 to more than 9,500 this year to improve service to troops and families with mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress, combat-related depression and other behavioral health concerns.

Col. Rebecca Porter, chief of Army behavioral health, told reporters in March the service worked hard to build its own corps of 4,500 mental health providers, more than half of whom are civilians.

“There is a national shortage of behavioral health providers,” Porter said. “We’ve worked several years ... to see them now looking elsewhere because they don’t have the job security they thought they were going to have, and they don’t know how much the organization or institution supports them in what they are trying to do. It is a morale issue.”

The exemption for mental health providers appears to be a win for Horoho and the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Jonathan Woodson, who told Congress he was alarmed at the prospect of losing mental health providers.

“I do have concerns that over the long term, how we sustain our robust capability to provide mental-health care to the force, and by extension, to family members or retirees that we serve,” Woodson said during a hearing March 13. “I worry about sustaining the workforce, particularly the most talented individuals who can go elsewhere.”

Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale said earlier this year that the services would be allowed to request certain exemptions, but he expected the number approved would be small.

“We would like to see consistency and fairness, because if we’re going to have to jump into this pool, we’d like to jump together,” Hale said in an April congressional hearing.

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