October 26, 2018

Warren Applauds Women Veterans Peer Counseling Provisions Included in New Opioids Law

New bipartisan law to help combat opioid epidemic requires VA to prioritize expansion of counseling program for women veterans

Washington, DC - When Congress passed bipartisan legislation to combat the opioid crisis earlier this month, it included important elements of the Women Veterans Peer Counseling Enhancement Act, which Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced in February 2018. The Women Veterans Peer Counseling Enhancement Act was designed to ensure the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Peer Support Program is equipped with an adequate number of peer counselors to address the mental health needs of women veterans. The bill is a companion to a House bill introduced in December 2017. 

Included in the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act, signed into law yesterday, is "Sec. 8051. Peer support counseling program for women veterans," which emphasizes the availability of peer counseling for women veterans who suffered sexual trauma while serving in military, who endure post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health conditions, or who are at risk of homelessness or suicide. It requires the VA to conduct outreach to women veterans with regard to the Peer Support program, and requires that the VA work with community organizations, state and local governments, school systems, business groups, legal aid groups, and other entities, to support women veterans' transitions to civilian life.

Senator Warren today released the following statement applauding the law's emphasis on expanding support to women veterans:

"Women veterans are smart, tough, and make incredible sacrifices defending our country, but too often they face barriers to receiving the mental health care they need when they return home.  I introduced the Women Veterans Peer Counseling Enhancement Act alongside Senator Ernst, a combat veteran, to make sure women veterans have better access to the mental health care and other vital services they have earned. I am glad that provisions of my bill to improve women veterans' access to trained peer counselors has been signed into law as part of a bipartisan effort to better address the opioid epidemic. This new law, including its additional support for women veterans, is an important first step, but we must keep pushing for more resources for the many communities impacted by this terrible epidemic."

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

Women veterans may be at increased risk of suffering from 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.