Legislation increasing women veteran counselors tucked within opioid bill

Kaylah Jackson
October 24, 2018 - 1:16 pm

(Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)

Hidden within the sweeping opioid legislation which President Trump signed into law Wednesday, is an act to strengthen the number of female peer counselors within VA.

"Women often don't have those networks like male veterans do, access to other women veterans who have been in the military and experienced what they have. It's an opportunity when you match up a veteran with a peer to really give them someone that they can relate to, that they can confide in, that they can help them navigate the system, that can help them in their recovery," points out Disabled American Veterans Legislative Director, Joy Ilem. 

The Women Veterans Peer Counseling Support Enhancement Act, sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Joni Ernst (R-IA) would ensure the VA hires a sufficient number of female service members who are well-versed in the gender-specific mental health issues that women veterans face. The women will be part of the Peer Support Program. An initiative that employs veterans with mental or reoccurring conditions to help others with similar conditions to identify and achieve specific goals in their life.

“The VA has been slow to gear up for the growing role that women play in our military and the demands that their increasing numbers will place on the VA system when they leave active duty,” said Colorado and Marine Corps Veteran, Mike Coffman (R-CO). “My bill, now law, is a recognition of that and it requires the VA to increase the number of counselors who are trained to specifically address the needs of the women who have served our nation in uniform.”

Even with the VA’s wide availability of peer counselors, only about 16 percent of them are women. For the female counselors that are available, they provide immense support for women veterans who experience post-traumatic stress, military sexual trauma or are at-risk for homelessness. While the Act doesn’t specify a goal percentage or a specific number of female peer counselors, lawmakers state that as the population of women veterans rapidly increases, resources for them should grow also.

"The problem sometimes when you put numbers in, rather than be a floor, it can be a ceiling. The needs clearly far outstrip the supply of trained peer-to-peer counselor," said Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-CT) who helped introduced the original legislation in 2017. 

Women veterans are the largest growing population within the veteran community and in order to support them, the act implores VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to work with community organizations at the state and local level to further support the transition of women veterans into civilian life.

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