[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), and U.S. Representatives Scott Peters (D-CA), Colin Allred (D-TX), and Tracey Mann (R-KS) introduced the Veteran Peer Specialist Act. This bicameral, bipartisan legislation would expand the highly successful peer specialist support program to all Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) 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.
By harnessing peer-to-peer relationships and applying their own lived experience, peer counseling specialists play a vital role in combatting risks of veteran suicide and treating mental health conditions. These specialists 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.
“This bill builds on the success of the peer specialist program by connecting more veterans to life-saving mental health and support resources,” said Blumenthal. “Through shared experience, peer counselors form meaningful and lasting relationships with veterans, empowering and assisting them as they transition into civilian life. Expanding this program to every VA medical center across the country would make this critical resource available to more veterans in need, significantly bolstering the fight against veteran suicide.”
“Less than half of returning veterans who need mental health treatment end up receiving it, according to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing,” said Blunt. “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.”
In 2017, Blumenthal and Blunt introduced the Veteran Partners’ Efforts to Enhance Reintegration Act (Veteran PEER Act) to establish peer specialist programs. The bill became a part of the VA MISSION Act, which called for the establishment of the program at no fewer than 30 locations. The Veteran Peer Specialist Act would amend the VA MISSION Act and expand the peer specialist program to all VA medical centers.
“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,” said Peters. “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.”
“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. “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.”
“Military service is forever service,” said 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.”
The Senate version of the legislation can be found here. A similar version of the bill was introduced in the House.