JACKSONVILLE, N.C. — Government officials this week furloughed behavioral and mental health workers, striking a blow to a military already trying to clear a backlog of mental health claims.
More than 800 behavioral and mental health appointments will be unavailable to the Marines, sailors and their families of Camp Lejeune during the course of the 11-week government furlough program, which began on Monday, according to base behavioral and mental health staff.
The federal civil service portion of the Naval Hospital’s mental health directorate aboard Camp Lejeune will provide 365 outpatient appointments per week. Before the furloughs, that number was 425 appointments per week. The furloughs mean a 14-percent daily decrease in available appointments with civil service providers, according to Naval Hospital officials. The realm of the directorate consists of active duty, civil service and contractors who together see more than 1,500 patients per week. No inpatient or emergency services will be affected by the furloughs.
“At the four mental health facilities on base, for example, there are 10 mental health professionals ranging from therapists to psychologists to psychiatrists that will be furloughed,” said a member of Camp Lejeune’s mental health staff, who is affected by the furloughs and wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals. “With the furloughs in place we’re looking at approximately 60 less sessions per week and that’s 60 possible appointments that will be added to the waiting list. That’s 60 more people who can slip through the cracks.”
The furloughing of government employees is a byproduct of government sequestration and affects more than 700,000 Department of Defense employees worldwide. Furloughs will cost affected employees 20 percent of their salary. Initially 22 furlough days were announced before being cut to 11.
Furlough guidance was given from high levels of the Department of Defense, said Navy Capt. David Lane, the commanding officer of the Naval Hospital aboard Camp Lejeune.
“It was planned from the very beginning that civilian employees would be furloughed,” Lane said. “They specifically said civilians providing inpatient and emergency care were exempt ... Out of 481 civilian employees we were able to exempt 149.”
The exemptions include staff in the emergency room, the intensive care unit, surgery department and more.
“We’re not the same hospital with the furloughs,” Lane said.
The hospital will continue normal operations, but will see challenges with federal civil service employees on furlough for 20 percent of each work week, Lane said.
Some Department of Defense employees are exempt from the furloughs, such as medical personnel required to handle emergency situations and crisis intervention. Behavioral and mental health providers were not among the exemptions.
“Currently if you look at the mental health directorate it probably takes a Marine or sailor two to four weeks to get their first follow-up after their initial assessment,” the worker said. “Because the full effects of the furloughs are still unknown, we estimate that the effects will be an additional week at the very minimum.”
Seeing a patient once per week is the goal but now, depending on patient caseload, that may turn into once every two weeks, said the worker.
Congressman Walter Jones says that cutting mental health programs is not in the best interest of the service member. Jones, R-N.C., said men and women in uniform deserve the highest standard of healthcare and furloughing mental health workers does not provide that.
“I believe that mental health professionals provide a crucial resource for our troops, and allowing furloughs to diminish the amount of care that these individuals are able to provide will only hinder the healing process for our service members,” Jones said.
The director of mental health for Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, Navy Capt. Sawsan Ghurani, said the quality of care will not diminish.
“The patients may not get the same time and attention of sessions they might normally be accustomed to,” said Ghurani who verified that all personnel connected to mental health care will be affected by furloughs. “We will do everything within our power to keep all patients in our program and provide them with high quality care.”
Even before furloughs took effect, the capacity to care for patients aboard Camp Lejeune was nearing its limit, Ghurani said. The furloughs will not limit Marines and sailors in crisis from receiving care though, said Ghurani.
“If anyone walks in our doors they are evaluated before they leave,” said Ghurani who added that despite the shortage of 60 weekly appointments, servicemembers who need care will get care. “That is a very stringent rule that we are not going to break under any circumstances: Everyone will get a screening if they come in and ask for help.”
Ghurani said the furlough is an overall concern across the Department of Defense.
“It’s difficult enough to ask for mental health care due to the stigma associated with it,” she said. “What we don’t want is people to think that because of the furlough we are unable to see people in crisis.
“We put the needs of our patients first.”