Local and national legislators introduce bipartisan bill to expand successful peer specialist support program to all VA medical centers

Congressman Colin Allred talks to veterans at the North Texas VA Medical Center. – Photo courtesy of U.S. House of Representatives

 

Special to The Dallas Examiner

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Congressman Colin Allred, D-Texas, joined with U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and Congressman Scott Peters, D-Calif., and Congressman Tracey Mann, R-Kan., Monday to introduce the Veteran Peer Specialist Act.

“Less than half of returning veterans who need mental health treatment end up receiving it, according to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing,” Blunt said. “Peer specialists – with their shared experience – are effective in reducing the stigma that can discourage our nation’s heroes from getting the care they need. This bicameral and bipartisan bill will improve mental health treatment for the men and women who put themselves in harm’s way to keep our nation safe.”

The legislation would expand the highly successful peer specialist support program to all Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers over the next five years, prioritizing expansion to rural areas, areas not near an active military installation, and the hiring of peer specialists that reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of the veteran population.

“Veterans seeking mental health services deserve the best support we have to offer, and working with a fellow veteran who has had similar experiences, and dealt with similar struggles, can be an enormous help,” said Allred, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Veterans helping veterans is always a great foundation to build upon, and this bill will help hire peer specialists at VA’s around the country. I thank my fellow cosponsors and I am proud to be working on this bipartisan bill to help improve mental health services for our veterans.”

By harnessing peer-to-peer relationships and applying their own lived experience, peer counseling specialists could play a vital role in combatting risks of veteran suicide and treating mental health conditions. These specialists will support fellow veterans and encourage recovery by helping them access health services and navigate the VA health care system, while also teaching coping and positive health-affirming behaviors.

“Veterans deserve world-class medical support after serving our country. This bipartisan, bicameral bill builds on the program we established in the 2018 VA MISSION Act by permanently expanding access to veterans’ the best guide to care: a fellow veteran,” Peters said. “I urge the House and Senate to support this legislation immediately to make sure our nation’s veterans receive the many benefits peer support networks offer.”

The new bill builds on the success of the peer specialist program by connecting more veterans to life-saving mental health and support resources, according to Blumenthal.

“Through shared experience, peer counselors form meaningful and lasting relationships with veterans, empowering and assisting them as they transition into civilian life,” he stated.

Furthermore, expanding the program to all of the country’s VA medical centers would make it a critical resource available to more veterans in need, significantly bolstering the fight against veteran suicide, Blumenthal explained.

“Military service is forever service,” said Congressman Mann. “That’s why it’s so important to connect our military veterans to the support resources and networks they need. The Veteran Peer Specialist Act is long overdue and is the right tool for our nation’s most deserving heroes. I look forward to its swift passage in both the U.S. House and Senate.”

The Veteran Peer Specialist Act has been endorsed by a number of veterans and health organizations, including the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, Military Order of the Purple Heart, Well Being Trust, Mental Health America, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors and National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

“One of the most exciting things about this legislation is that it enables veteran peer specialists to engage with veterans in ways that promote recovery and empowerment by meeting them at what is often their first point of entry into the VA health care system,” stated Michael Pollock, chief executive officer for the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. “It has the potential to develop veterans as leaders, joining forces with the health care team resulting in better overall health and wellness.”

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