Military OneSource will offer peer support for troops and family members beginning this summer, expanding the military community’s options for confidential assistance. The move comes as DoD decided not to renew the contract for the Vets4Warriors program, which provided peer-to-peer support for veterans, service members and families since December 2011. Vets4Warriors has connected callers to people who have walked paths similar to theirs, as part of helping them find resources for support.
Some New Jersey lawmakers have asked Defense Secretary Ash Carter to reconsider the decision on Vets4Warriors, operated by Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care through a call center with about 40 employees in Piscataway, N.J.
“We are concerned that by integrating these efforts into the Defense Department’s Military OneSource program, the trust in the confidential assistance provided by an organization like Vets4Warriors will be lost,” wrote the lawmakers in a May 20 letter to Carter. “Decreasing the number of options available to our service members struggling with mental health concerns seems irresponsible and an unconscionable shirking of our responsibility to service members and their families.”
The effort was led by Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr (D-NJ) who signed the letter, as well as New Jersey Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), Rep Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Rwp Tom MacArthur (R-NJ).
Defense officials contend they are not cutting services, but expanding them.
“We are widening the network of care, not narrowing it,” said Rosemary Freitas Williams, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military community and family policy. Military OneSource, provided through a contract, also is confidential, noted Williams, whose office oversees that program.
The Vets4Warriors program, provided by contract through the DoD Suicide Prevention Office, has cost DoD about $5.5 million a year. But cost savings did not drive the decision, said DoD spokeswoman Laura Seal.
“What drives our decision making is a steadfast commitment to providing service members and families with the best possible benefits and assistance, which is what expansion of Military OneSource to include peer-to-peer support enables us to do,” Seal said.
Vets4Warriors officials referred questions to the Defense Department. Information was not immediately available about whether Vets4Warriors may continue with outside funding. DoD is developing a transition plan to ensure continuity of care for active cases, call forwarding, website queries, email and social media transfers to Military OneSource.
Williams said DoD experts have had discussions with Vets4Warriors officials about lessons learned. DoD plans to start offering peer-to-peer support by June 15, Williams said. Such support through Vets4Warriors ends when that contract expires Aug. 15. There is no need to add staff members for the peer support expansion, because a number of the consultants are military spouses, military parents, retirees or veterans, Williams said.
Even so, these master’s degree-level consultants will get additional training in peer-to-peer support, she said. Peer support has always been an informal part of the military community. “Military spouses have always been a tight community,” offering each other support, she said, but now the effectiveness of such support has been documented. “The exciting thing is, it’s evidence-based. We know it works,” she said.
The New Jersey lawmakers said the Vets4Warriors program has had more than “130,000 contacts” with service members and their families since its launch in December 2011. As part of the program, the trained peers also follow up with troops, veterans and family members to make sure their needs are met after the initial call. Williams said Military OneSource has about 900,000 contacts each year and also follows up with service members and families. Unlike Vets4Warriors, Military OneSource assistance is available only to retirees, veterans and their families within 180 days after leaving the service.
Callers to Military OneSource can be connected to consultants — all of whom have at least a master’s degree in psychology or a social science field and can address a variety of needs in one call. The consultations can be done by telephone, through the Web, face-to-face or by video. People rarely call for one issue or need, Williams said.
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House lawmakers on May 15 approved a $612 billion defense authorization bill for next year despite objections from Democratic leaders and a White House veto threat over plans to skirt spending caps with oversized temporary war funds. The measure includes an overhaul of the military’s retirement system and rejects a host of pay and benefits trims proposed by the Pentagon.
It supports, in principle, a 2.3 percent pay raise for troops, but lacks the legislative language to force that paycheck boost, leaving flexibility for President Obama to go with the lower 1.3 percent raise backed by Pentagon leaders. The bill also includes a host of new policy changes on sexual assault protections and prosecution, reforms to the defense acquisition process, and restrictions on transfer of detainees out of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The final 269-151 vote came after two days of pleas from Republican leaders to advance the bill. The measure had passed out of the House Armed Services Committee last month on a 60-2 vote and often enjoys bipartisan support even amid the bitter party fights that have become increasingly common on Capitol Hill.
But Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the armed services committee’s ranking Democrat, led efforts to oppose the measure this time over the war funding boost, calling it a gimmick by GOP leaders. The White House has also threatened to veto the measure over the funding breakdown.
Administration officials had pushed for the same total level of spending but with congressional action to repeal the spending caps approved in 2011, which would allow increased spending for other agencies as well. Instead, the GOP plan shifted almost $40 billion into the Pentagon’s temporary “overseas contingency operations” war fund and left the overall spending caps in place.
On May 14, the House also stripped from the bill another controversial provision that would have encouraged military officials to study ways to enlist undocumented immigrants in exchange for a pathway to legal status. The 221-202 vote on that provision — with all House Democrats voting against it — helped shore up GOP support for the measure and temporarily injected the ongoing immigration fight into the defense bill.
And just before final passage, Republicans rejected a bid by Democrats to lock in the 2.3 percent pay raise for the troops and also guarantee continued pay for the military in the event of a government shutdown.
The differences in those plans must be reconciled by a conference committee later this summer, after the Senate’s draft of the defense authorization bill is finalized. No voting schedule has been announced in that chamber. The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the bill includes the 1.3 percent pay raise, trims to housing allowances and changes to the Tricare health benefit.