February 08, 2018

Senators Introduce Bipartisan, Bicameral Legislation to Increase Number of VA Peer Counselors for Women Veterans

Women Peer Counselors Make Up Only 16% Of VA Peer Support Program

Bill Text | One-Pager

Washington, DC - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) today introduced the Women Veterans Peer Counseling Enhancement Act to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Peer Support Program is equipped with an adequate amount of peer counselors to help address the mental health needs of women veterans. Representatives Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) originally introduced the companion legislation in the House of Representatives on December 13, 2017.

The VA Peer Support Program currently employs more than 1,000 peer counselors in VA health care facilities and Community Based Outpatient Clinics around the nation who are trained to help veterans manage and overcome mental health conditions, substance use disorders, homelessness, and other challenges. Peer counselors are veterans themselves and can relate in profound ways to the mental health challenges facing veterans.

Women veterans rely on the VA Peer Support Program and face significant mental health challenges. A 2016 VA report on veterans' mental health found that the "risk for suicide was 2.5 times higher among female veterans when compared with U.S. civilian adult women." The VA has also observed that women veterans "who experienced military sexual trauma, who have mental health conditions, and/or who are at risk of becoming homeless face numerous barriers in seeking and accessing assistance, including through VA." There's a demonstrable need for the VA to increase peer counselors with experience in issues affecting women veterans - but only about 16% of peer counselors are women.

"Our veterans make incredible sacrifices to keep our nation safe, and we owe them a debt of gratitude for their service. Too often, women veterans face especially tough barriers to getting the mental health support services they need and are entitled to," said Senator Warren. "By increasing the number of VA peer counselors, our bill will help make sure that women veterans have better access to the care they deserve."

"According to a VA report, the risk of suicide among female veterans is more than twice as high as female civilians," said Senator Ernst, a combat veteran. "While we have been working to ensure female veterans receive the care they deserve, we must do more. Providing additional peer counselors who understand the unique struggles of a female veteran is another way we can better help our servicemembers transition back to civilian life. I am proud to join in this bipartisan and bicameral effort, and it's my hope that Congress will act quickly."

"The VA's existing peer-to-peer counseling program has seen great success. This bill would build upon its proven record by creating a more representative program of the veteran population and focus on the mental health needs of female veterans. I appreciate the support of Sen. Warren and Sen. Ernst in pushing for this important legislation in the Senate," said Representative Coffman.  

"Supporting the women who put their lives on the line for our country is something we should all embrace," said Representative Esty, ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee. "The peer-to-peer counseling program helps to ensure that the women who served in uniform, who often face higher risks for serious mental health challenges, will receive the care and support they deserve. I'm grateful for Sen. Warren, Sen. Ernst, and Rep. Coffman's efforts to further this important, bipartisan cause."

The Women Veterans Peer Counseling Enhancement Act directs the VA Secretary to:

  • Ensure that the VA hires a sufficient number of peer counselors providing mental health counseling services to women veterans.
  • Emphasize the availability of peer counseling for women veterans who suffered sexual trauma while serving in military, endure post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health condition, or are at risk of homelessness.
  • Conduct outreach to inform women veterans about the VA's Peer Support program and the types of assistance offered under the program.
  • Work with community organizations, state and local governments, school systems, business groups, legal aid groups, and other appropriate entities to support women veterans' transition to civilian life.

The Women Veterans Peer Counseling Enhancement Act is endorsed by The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, and Wounded Warrior Project.