State lawmakers want Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul to deviate from her predecessor and fund a program that saves veterans’ lives.
The Pfc. Joseph P. Dwyer Veteran Peer-to-Peer Program mentors veterans with trained peers who have also served in combat to help with PTSD, Traumatic Brain Injury and other mental health issues.
The program, named for a veteran who lost his life to PTSD, is frequently known as the Vet2Vet program, and has saved the lives of New York veterans in 30 counties and New York City since it was first funded in 2016.
“If it wasn’t for the Vet2Vet program ... I wouldn’t be here today,” Army veteran Michelle Noone said Wednesday at the Dutchess County Vet2Vet Office in Poughkeepsie. “Now, I’m able to help other veterans because ... everything they’ve done for me over the years has just given me purpose and a place where I know I won’t be mocked for having PTSD — I won’t be mocked because I couldn’t pay my insurance bill. (I) can come here and I can ask ‘Will you help me?’ and three or four people will jump at the chance to help.”
Noone, a Dutchess County resident, completed a tour in Iraq during the ongoing war on terrorism and choked back tears Wednesday when recalling how the Dwyer program changed and saved her life.
“Anything I can do to make sure this program continues, I will, because it’s about life or death,” she said.
Each year, lawmakers have been forced to negotiate with the Executive Chamber to fund the Dwyer veteran peer program.
Former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did not include funding for the program in any of his Executive Budget proposals since 2016, and left the program’s finances for lawmakers to use as a bargaining chip when the Senate and Assembly submit their amended proposals in March before the April 1 budget deadline each year.
“State funding for this program started in (Fiscal Year) 2016, and has been funded annually through the budget process by the Legislature,” Division of the Budget spokesperson Freeman Klopott said Wednesday in a statement. “It has not been included in any Executive Budget proposals.”
Veterans from across the state have traveled to Albany to rally and fight for the program to be included in the final state budget for the last six sessions.
“This Veterans Day ... Now is the time to let them know that they won’t have to fight for the resources that veterans and their families across the state have come to rely on,” said Sen. Sue Serino, R-Hyde Park. “Now is the time for Gov. Kathy Hochul and our legislative leaders to take the guesswork out of this budget cycle and fully fund the Joseph P. Dwyer program next year.”
The Legislature funded the program with $5 million in the 2021-22 Fiscal Year budget in April, which remains an insufficient amount to fund an adequate program in each of the state’s 62 counties.
The Legislature first voted to fund it with $3.2 million in 2016.
Hochul, a Democrat who took office Aug. 24, has not publicly committed to funding the program in her Executive Budget proposal.
“Gov. Hochul has fought throughout her career to ensure veterans receive the support they deserve, and we will work with stakeholders and the Legislature during the upcoming budget process to address the needs of veterans across the state,” a spokesperson with Hochul’s office said in a statement Wednesday.
Representatives with the governor’s office would not answer questions about Hochul’s stance on funding the Dwyer program and how she will deviate from Cuomo’s history of leaving it out of the executive’s fiscal plans.
Lawmakers on Wednesday encouraged Hochul to make history by funding the Dwyer program in her first Executive Budget to be released in January.
Assemblymember Didi Barrett, D-Hudson, who chairs the Assembly’s Veterans Affairs Committee, has had discussions with Hochul about reforming state veterans services and ending the annual fiscal fight over the Dwyer program.
“This is a moment for our new governor to step up,” Barrett said Wednesday. “This is something that the executive should be putting in her budget at the outset and recognizing the significance of the program so veterans and their families don’t have to wonder each year if it will make it in the final spending plan. It should be there as part of the governor’s commitment.”
Lawmakers have not started negotiations for the 2022-23 state budget, they said Wednesday.
Hochul is expected to sign several pieces of legislation Thursday to support veterans services in the state in honor of Veterans Day.
“She’s definitely interested in supporting our veterans,” Barrett said, adding that the governor’s staff have been receptive to the importance of the veteran peer program in recent conversations.“We’re hopeful ... she seems to be taking steps that are really beneficial for our veterans.”
Barrett introduced a bill to establish a state Division of Veterans’ Services as a standalone agency with a commissioner, and to place the funding and details of veterans programs in one place. The agency would also streamline services and access for veterans across the state.
The state Office of Mental Health allocates $5 million for the veteran peer program in Broome, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Columbia, Dutchess, Erie, Genesee, Orleans, Wyoming, Jefferson, Monroe, Nassau, Niagara, Onondaga, Orange, Putnam, Rensselaer, Rockland, Saratoga, Suffolk, Sullivan, Ulster, Warren, Washington and Westchester counties, the SUNY Albany School of Social Welfare and the five counties within New York City.
Jefferson County receives $185,000 for the program each year, Klopott said.
The state also provides $185,000 for the program serving veterans in Genesee, Orleans and Wyoming counties.
U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-Shirley, introduced a bill in Congress in 2019, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, to require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs establish the Dwyer peer support program nationwide and create grants for peer-to-peer mental health programs for veterans.