WASHINGTON – Veterans struggling with mental health issues will be eligible to receive assistance dogs under a pilot program approved by Congress.
Congress finalized a bill Friday that directs the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to launch a five-year pilot program that provides service dog training for the benefit of veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, the VA only covers certain costs of service dogs for veterans with certain physical disabilities, such as blindness, hearing loss, and mobility issues, but not mental health issues.
“Many disabled veterans have had their lives changed – in some cases saved – by service dogs,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, RN.D., in a statement. “Our bill would expand this treatment by launching a pilot program to make veterans with mental health issues such as depression eligible to receive service dogs.”
Cramer, with Sens. Thom Tillis, RN.C., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., And Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Introduced the bill, titled Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act, or PAWS Act. The bill has already passed the House and has been sent to the White House for President Joe Biden’s signature.
The law requires the VA to launch the pilot program in early 2022, and it must be carried out by at least five VA medical centers. The facilities will partner with accredited assistance dog organizations to conduct the training.
Once the pilot program is completed, the VA must report to Congress on whether the program should be extended or made permanent. If the program continues beyond five years, Congress will consider expanding it to address mental health issues other than PTSD.
Advocates for veterans with mental health problems have described the bill as “a huge step forward.”
“This pilot program will help prove, once again, the impact a service dog can have on life in alleviating a veteran’s symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. [disorder]”said Rory Diamond, CEO of K9s for Warriors.” We’re on track to make service dogs a covered benefit for veterans with PTSD. “
Mental Health Assistance Dogs are task-trained to help people with PTSD, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, depression, and other conditions. They can pick up medication, bring their partner an emergency phone, call 911 or a suicide hotline with a K9 emergency phone, turn on lights, and help with emotional overload, among other things.
Some lawmakers and advocates have pushed the VA for years to help veterans with PTSD cover the costs of training assistance dogs. The department maintained that there was not enough scientific evidence showing that dogs help treat PTSD and its symptoms.
Congress asked the VA to conduct a study on the issue in 2010. The first results were published in March. The study found that veterans paired with service dogs experience a reduction in the severity of their PTSD symptoms. They exhibited less suicidal behavior and ideation after 18 months of working with a service dog.
Further results of the study, including its cost-effectiveness as a treatment for PTSD, are expected to be published in September.
“Veterans suffering from invisible wounds of war are now one step closer to being able to seek out this unique and scientifically proven treatment through VA,” said Bill McCabe, director of legislative affairs for the Enlisted Association. “We now urge the president to sign this important legislation without delay. “