SMITHFIELD, R.I. (WPRI) – A federal agency has made a number of recommendations about a Veterans Affairs counseling program following a complaint by a Smithfield man who claims a weekly session requirement is burning out counselors.
Former Marine Lt. Colonel Ted Blickwedel worked as a counselor for the VA’s Readjustment Counseling Service at their Warwick Vet Center for nine years until he abruptly retired in 2018.
He left his post about three years earlier than he planned citing a hostile work environment that he said caused serious health issues.
“I actually developed a clot which literally almost killed me,” Blickwedel said. “Doctors are actually surprised I’m alive.”
About two years earlier, in 2016, the VA had established a new metric for counseling sessions – 30 sessions a week per counselor.
According to Blickwedel, research shows there’s a significant drop-off in treatment effectiveness when counselors have caseloads of 25 or more clients per week.
After Blickwedel and others questioned what they considered a counseling quota, and its impact on the quality of care and counselors, the Marine who served in the Persian Gulf War in 1991 claims superiors struck back.
“I was retaliated against. I heard about it from other counselors behind the scenes,” Blickwedel said. “And in at least one case someone was fired.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) began investigating the claims about a year ago, and now has released a report that states the counseling standards “have the potential to negatively affect care and create undue burden and stress on counselors providing” care at Vet Centers.
The report, addressed to R.I. Senator Jack Reed and Montana Democrat Senator Jon Tester in their roles on the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs makes four recommendations to the Readjustment Counseling Service (RCS) Chief Officer for the Vet Center program.
Among them, periodically reassessing productivity expectations, obtaining feedback from counselors and devloping Vet Center staffing models that incorporate best practices.
Blickwedel said he is hopeful with the GAO and Congress involved, changes will be made.
“It’s not like it’s going to happen overnight but this is certainly a good start going forward,” Blickwedel said. “There has to be some standards. The issue here is, it needs to be reasonable.”
RCS Communications Officer Jessica Schiefer did not offer specific comments on the report other than saying the VA looks “forward to working with GAO to continue strengthening the high-quality care and services provided at Vet Centers.”
“95 percent of Vet Center clients last year said they would recommend their Vet Center to another active duty service member, veteran, or family,” Schiefer said in an email. “And an overwhelming amount remarked that the Vet Center saved their life.”
Schiefer added 80 percent of the Vet Center counselors “met of far exceeded their performance standards” in 2019.
Blickwedel said he remains in communication with the GAO and local congressional offices to help ensure compliance.