U.S. Representatives Anthony Gonzalez (OH-16) and Kathleen Rice (NY-04) are introducing the VA Peer Specialists Act to expand access to peer support services. Peer specialists are Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees who provide support and assistance to help fellow veterans in recovery to successfully engage in mental health and substance use treatment. The bill will also improve staffing of the program by including more women in peer specialist positions at the VA.
“Far too many of America’s veterans struggle with issues of mental health and substance abuse, and in a community where toughness is so often idealized, it can be hard for these veterans to seek the help and support they need. Peer support services are vital to bridging that divide and connecting more of these American heroes to potentially lifesaving care,” said Congressman Gonzalez. “I am proud to introduce this bill alongside Rep. Kathleen Rice to help ensure that our female veterans in need can benefit from this program and that the makeup of our peer support specialists reflects and lifts up our growing number of female veterans.”
“Our veterans are best served by their peers who have shared their experience with military service and health challenges,” said Rep. Kathleen Rice. “This is why many women veterans who need mental health services specifically request women peer support specialists. However, due to the lack of women employed in these positions, this is not always possible. Our bipartisan legislation would address this issue and improve access to care for veterans by requiring the VA to conduct a thorough analysis of its staffing plan in order to ensure the growing need for women peer specialists is met.”
VA’s peer support program is robust, with over 1,000 peer support specialists or apprentices around the country according to DAV’s Women Veterans: The Journey Ahead report. Peer support specialists have been proven to help reduce stigma, expand access to mental health care, and improve recovery outcomes. However, as of May 2017, only 18 percent of peer support specialists were women, and many of them were concentrated in specific areas of the country. As a result, many women veterans lack access to gender-specific care.
The VA Peer Specialists Act would address the shortage of women peer support specialists by requiring the VA to conduct an in-depth analysis of its current staffing plan for peer specialists who are women and to report to Congress about their geographic distribution. It would also direct the VA to examine how that data matches up with the population and geographic distribution of women veterans, what the specified responsibilities are for peer specialists, and what percentage of these specialists focus on mental health and/or suicide prevention.
The VA Peer Specialists Act is supported by the Minority Veterans of America (MVA), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), Nurses Organization of Veterans Affairs (NOVA), the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).