BAY PINES, Fla. - For as brave as America’s veterans are, they are often also our country’s most vulnerable citizens. The brutalities of war have left countless veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs scrambling to improve its mental health support.
10Investigates found several Veterans Administration facilities failing to follow federal guidelines regarding peer specialists, defined as “a person with a mental health and/or co-occurring condition, who has been trained to help others with these conditions, identify and achieve specific life and recovery goals.”
The positions were deemed so crucial to veterans’ care, President Obama signed an executive order in 2012 expanding the program by 800 counselors and adding new oversights. Since then, peer specialists have helped thousands of vulnerable veterans deal with mental health issues and adjust to civilian life.
But George Barbour, a VA employee whistleblower and Vietnam-era veteran who has dealt with mental illness himself, reached out to 10Investigates after he suspected the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System wasn’t ensuring peer specialists received federally-mandated training, certificates and continued education.
“We need to have the best care for (veterans),” Barbour said. “The military was their job and when they come back they're lost...They sacrificed a lot for us.”
Barbour said he believes the shortcomings to be widespread, echoing a similar investigation from 10News’ partners in Minneapolis, who exposed unqualified doctors performing tens of thousands of traumatic brain injury tests on veterans.
A spokesperson for Bay Pines declined multiple interview requests regarding peer specialists, and was initially unable to verify employees’ credentials. 10Investigates was told no record existed documenting the employees’ certifications and training. However, the VA is now asking for proof of certifications and has pushed non-compliant peer specialists to obtain the proper certification and training.
“The Peer Specialist program is providing an important service to our nation’s veterans,” Col. Susan Wentzell (Ret.), spokesperson for Bay Pines, wrote in an email. “Veterans who have experienced (or are recovering from) mental illness can inspire others by helping them recover while making effective use of resources.
“It’s important your viewers know these Peer Specialists get significantly more oversight from their supervisors, program managers, other members of their interdisciplinary team, and Mental Health leadership than anything that can be accomplished by their certification bodies.
"They are embedded within interdisciplinary teams and provide a service that is supplementary to all of the other wonderful therapeutic activities in each of these Medical Center’s Mental Health programs. They ‘bridge the gap’ between veterans struggling with mental illness/substance abuse and the services that are offered in VA.”
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