From long separations due to deployments and extended training to frequent moves and increased rates of spouse unemployment, servicemembers and their families experience intense stress caused by unique challenges related to serving their country. A new bill would provide much-needed support to a key program for these families in challenging times.
The Military and Family Life Counseling (MFLC) program offers nonmedical counseling to servicemembers, their families, and survivors worldwide. Licensed social workers provide confidential, solution-focused counseling, both in-person and virtually, in areas including mental health and well-being, financial management, parenting, stress management, and grief or loss.
And because MFLCs are outside the chain of command, they help reduce the stigma associated with seeking help. Many servicemembers remain concerned seeking help could negatively impact their careers; the confidentiality and responsiveness MFLCs provide helps close the counselor and behavioral health gap available for servicemembers and their families.
The COMFORT Act
Unfortunately, there is a nationwide shortage of behavioral health professionals – a shortage that’s particularly acute in rural military communities. Recently, bicameral, bipartisan legislation was introduced by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) along with Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.) to address this issue.
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The Comforting our Military Families through On-base or Remote Treatment (COMFORT) Act (S. 3021/H.R. 5758) would allow MFLC counselors with an active state license to provide counseling service to servicemembers and their families anywhere in the nation. MOAA is pleased to support these efforts to improve license portability for MFLC providers.
“Military Family Life Counselors provide a valuable service to military families who deal with unique challenges and sacrifices while serving their country,” said Lt. Gen. Dana T. Atkins, USAF (Ret), MOAA president and CEO. “Providing license portability for MFLCs who are military spouses will not only improve availability of these services for our military families, it will also enhance employment opportunities for qualified military spouses who are significantly impacted by frequent moves affecting licensure status.”
Hiring MFLC counselors from a nationwide applicant pool would allow DoD to more easily meet the high demand for service providers. There has been a significant increase in virtual counseling, or “tele-therapy,” due to the pandemic: According to a survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, prior to COVID-19, only 2.1% of respondents reported using tele-therapy. That number has since soared to 84.7%.
Liz Porter, President of Leidos Health, the company administering the MFLC program, said, “As a military spouse, I know military families continually confront unique stresses in addition to what most families face. Unfortunately, the nationwide shortage of mental health professionals is particularly acute in rural areas where many military bases are located, and state-by-state licensure requirements make it difficult for counselors to relocate to serve these military communities. License reciprocity across state lines for nonmedical mental and behavioral health counselors will help ease these challenges as we continue to work with DoD to provide the very best counseling services to military families.”
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Not only is this increase in tele-therapy more convenient for those seeking counseling, but it is also especially important for those living in rural areas, often referred to as mental health deserts. In military communities such as California’s Fort Irwin or Marine Corps Base Twentynine Palms, servicemembers and families may have to travel long distances to receive in-person counseling.
The COMFORT Act will help reduce the shortage of behavioral health providers and better equip DoD to meet the demand for counseling services for military families. With increased license portability, MFLC counselors will have increased flexibility to respond to local traumatic events, natural disasters, or redeployment of multiple units to one military base.
The bill is one of many pieces of legislation supported by MOAA in its work to help military families. Learn more about all ongoing advocacy efforts at MOAA.org/advocacy-news, and visit MOAA’s Spouse and Family page for the latest news, resources, and more.
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MOAA is committed to protecting the rights of servicemembers and their families. Lend your voice and support these efforts today. Because the larger our voice is, the greater our impact will be.