Thank you for allowing us to present.
My name is Mike Fisher, and I'm going to talk about the Vet Center program.
The Vet Center program is a community-based program within the Veterans Health Administration of VA. It provides readjustment counselling to anyone who's served in a combat zone and anyone who's experienced a military sexual trauma or harassment, as well as bereavement counselling.
Our program actually started in the late seventies, early eighties, as a place for the Vietnam combat veteran to go to speak with their fellow combat veterans. We've actually blossomed: today we have more formalized counselling, with social workers, psychologists, etc., providing readjustment counselling. But we've always held true to the veteran-to-veteran connection that we started from. A majority of our staff are combat veterans as well as veterans of other eras.
Our program is a little different from most programs within the VA in that, as I said before, we're community-based. There are approximately now 300 Vet Center locations across the country. We're in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Guam.
The other difference in our program is that family members—that's really whoever the veteran decides their family to be—can come and use our services. We do individual, group, marriage, and family counselling. Many of our locations have employment representatives, whether from the state or other community partners, to come in and help out with employment issues. We also have veterans service officers or other individuals within the VBA to come in and help out with benefit-related issues.
So it really becomes a one-stop shop for the veteran to come in and deal with whatever they want to talk about.
I mentioned before that we also do military sexual trauma, and we also have a bereavement program. Our bereavement program is for the family members of anyone who has experienced an active duty death. That can be in a war zone or in training; it doesn't matter where the death happens, just as long as the individual was on active duty.
We have a couple of niches within our program. Since 2003 the Secretary of VA authorized 100 outreach workers to go out and proactively provide information and referral to their fellow combat veterans. These are Iraq or Afghanistan outreach workers. We go out to federal, state, or locally sponsored veterans events and really provide information and early access to Vet Center services as well as VA services.
In the packet that you have been provided with, you'll see a couple of pages with pictures of our outreach workers. The great part about our outreach program is that many of the people who come into the outreach program come in, start doing their job, enjoy the work, and actually end up going back for their advanced degree.
One of the individuals here, Hector Delgado, is actually working on his master's in social work. He's going to become a next-generation counsellor at the Vet Center program, opening up that outreach spot where we can bring in a new combat veteran and then continue the process.
Another initiative we have just started is our combat call centre. The number is 877-WAR-VETS. This is a 24/7 call centre that's actually based out of Denver, Colorado. It allows combat veterans and their families to call in and talk about their military experience or transition from military to civilian life. The call centre is actually staffed by combat veterans of all eras as well as family members of combat veterans. It's really a safe and confidential space for them to come in and just talk with somebody.
We do have a mobile Vet Center program, and we've just increased the fleet to 70 vehicles. These vehicles are really designed to take Vet Center services and outreach to wherever the veterans or service members are. Their primary missions are to provide early access to returning service members and their families at demobilization events and going to military bases. We also provide outreach and Vet Center services to those who are geographically distant from existing services. There's also an emergency service component to that.
The vehicles themselves are large motor vehicles. They actually have space inside for confidential counselling. We have two sizes. A large vehicle has two counselling rooms; our more streamlined size has one counselling space in there. That space can actually be reconfigured to bring in litters so that when a national disaster happens, we can provide services through that.
The vehicles also have encrypted satellite technology, where we can access, in the encrypted environment, all VA systems of records. When we go on outreach events, we actually like to bring all the VA with us, whether it's representatives from VBA or the medical centres, and we can do active enrollments; we can have people access their medical records through our encrypted system.
I'd like to leave with one last point, which is in regard to our confidentiality. The Vet Center program actually maintains a separate system of records, different from the VA medical centre records as well as the VBA records. Access into those record systems is really only through the informed consent or a signed release of information from the veteran, unless it's in situations to avoid a crisis, where the individual has the potential to harm themselves or somebody else. It is really giving controlled ownership of the counselling record of the Vet Center to the veteran.
Once again, thank you for your time. We will be available to answer any questions.