Rep. Lauren Davis (D-Shoreline) plans to introduce legislation that would create more jobs and opportunities for peer support specialists in Washington when the legislative session begins in January.
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Davis has sought input from industry stakeholders to finalize her bill, which she will present to the Internal Health Care and Welfare Committee in the next legislative session. The bill seeks to establish certified peer specialists as a recognized profession under Title 18.
“The peers are nowhere to be found in there,” Davis told State of Reform. “They are a legitimate healthcare profession but are not classified as such now. This would create parity and recognize them as a legitimate health profession in the eyes of the law.
Peer support specialists work with adults and youth with mental health or addictions issues. They often provide advice based on their past life experiences while working with patients, making them reliable peers for those in need of support.
The bill would help meet the needs of the state behavioral health workforce shortage creating more jobs for peers and expanding access to peer services. However, peers are currently limited to serving only Medicaid recipients and working strictly in community behavioral health agencies, so youth and adults with commercial insurance cannot access their services. And peers who work in other settings, like emergency departments and urgent behavioral health care, can’t bill insurance companies for their services.
“It would create a lot more jobs for peers,” Davis said. “Peers are so fundamental in the recovery process. It is therefore problematic that people who need services cannot obtain them.
The legislation would lead to peer-to-peer job offers in settings that charge commercial carriers, such as emergency care, Davis said. It would also be financially advantageous for them.
“These types of facilities tend to pay more than hospital facilities,” Davis said. “Currently, the only place peers exist is in community behavioral health. This would therefore mean more jobs and opportunities for them to work in different environments, as well as an increase in salaries. As soon as they are on title 18, they can bill for peer services.
The bill would also establish a career ladder by creating a peer supervisor position, Davis said.
“Peers have kind of been told that the way to go is to get a clinical degree,” Davis said. “But peer work is distinctly non-clinical. They don’t diagnose, they don’t treat. So to suggest that the only path to elevate your career is through a clinical degree is an entirely different trajectory. We want to give people who are attracted to peer work an opportunity for advancement.
The bill would provide a creative solution to help supplement the behavioral health workforce, as there is currently a surplus of workers in the field of peer support. The The Washington State Health Care Authority Peer Support Program had more than 1,400 people on the waiting list to acquire certified peer counselor training in July.
Peers are often excluded from behavioral health conversations because they may have past experiences of incarceration, homelessness, or substance use disorders.
“But in this area, that’s exactly what they’re qualified for,” Davis said. “It’s the only behavioral health profession where we have a surplus of workers. You can’t produce a clinician quickly, but you can produce peers quickly.
Davis introduced similar legislation, formerly known as the Bill of 1865, in the legislature last January, but died in committee. She said the bill had been significantly amended and would garner a lot of support this year.
“He got a lot of feedback,” Davis said. “There is strong support from the community. The bill was drafted by peers and has broad support in the legislature, in part because most MPs understood what a peer is and what it does. People are now realizing that peers are an essential part of health solutions moving forward. Thus, the Legislature is very supportive of peers in general and believes in the power and ability of peers.
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