WASHINGTON – Bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Senators Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) to expand veterans’ access to peer counseling specialists passed the Senate last night by unanimous consent. Peer specialists can be particularly effective in combating the risks of suicide and addressing other mental health needs amongst veterans.
“Strengthening the peer specialist program is a common-sense step to improve mental health treatment for our nation’s veterans,” said Blunt. “Peer specialists have first-hand experience in overcoming the challenges our nation’s heroes face, whether it’s navigating the VA or accessing treatment services. I urge my colleagues in the House to support this bill and help our veterans get the care they have earned and deserve.”
“Our bipartisan legislation will establish peer specialists within VA medical centers to improve and expand upon existing veteran treatment and services,” said Blumenthal. “A veteran’s unique relationship with a peer can help provide powerful and unparalleled emotional support – whether they are newly transitioning to civilian life, or seeking long-term care. Bolstering this kind of relationship among veterans is an effective way to enable more access to vital medical and mental health care.”
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) currently employs peer specialists to assist veterans in treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders. Peer specialists support fellow veterans and encourage recovery by helping veterans access health services; making it easier to navigate the VA healthcare system; and teaching coping and positive health-affirming behavior. The VA was instructed by a 2012 Executive Order to hire and train 800 peer counselors by December 31, 2013, to treat the estimated 1.5 million veterans requiring mental health services.
The Veteran Partners’ Efforts to Enhance Reintegration Act (Veteran PEER Act) will expand veterans’ access to peer specialist services by specifically targeting shortcomings in the current program, including peer specialists’ restricted participation in primary care services; persistent stigma attached to seeking treatment for mental health disorders; and under-promoted proven successes of the peer specialist program in veteran reintegration.
The Veteran PEER Act:
- Authorizes the VA to establish peer specialists in Patient Aligned Care Teams within VA medical centers to promote the use and integration of mental health and substance use treatment services in the primary care setting.
- Implements the program in 50 locations across the nation over two years, with required consideration of rural and underserved areas when selecting program locations.
- Requires regular reports to Congress with information on the benefits to veterans and their families derived from use of peer specialists.