Mental Health Service Dog Bill For Veterans Passes House

by John M. Simpson.

On February 5, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed, by voice vote, H.R. 4305, entitled the “Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veterans Therapy Act” or “PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act.”  If the bill becomes law it would establish a pilot program in which grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs would be made to assess the “effectiveness of addressing post-deployment mental health and post-traumatic stress disorder … symptoms through a therapeutic medium of training service dogs for veterans with disabilities.”  Among other things, grantee organizations would ensure that participating veterans would receive “training from certified service dog training instructors for a period of time determined appropriate … including service skills to address or alleviate symptoms unique to veterans’ needs.”

Key findings underlying the proposal include:

  • An average of 20 veterans died by suicide each day in 2014.
  • Mental health disorders, including major depression and other mood disorders, have been associated with increased risk for suicide.
  • The proportion of VA patients with mental health conditions or substance abuse disorders has increased from approximately 27% in 2001 to more than 40% in 2014.
  • Suicide rates are higher among VA patients with mental health and substance abuse disorders who are in treatment and lower among those who received a mental health diagnosis but were not at risk enough to require enhanced care.

Representative Steve Stivers (R.) of Ohio introduced the bill and described the bill’s purpose as follows:

[O]ur servicemembers returning from war sometimes have invisible wounds. I served as a battalion commander in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and soldiers under my command came back with post-traumatic stress and, indeed, some even with traumatic brain injury. All too often, we see the links between military service and mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress, as well as traumatic brain injury and even suicide. Mr. Speaker, we lose 20 veterans a day to suicide. Congress has to work to address that situation. Mental health and the suicide epidemic that are facing veterans can’t be solved with a single solution, but it is important we look at this comprehensively and come up with as many building blocks as we can to address this crisis. That is why I introduced the PAWS for Veterans Therapy Act, which is based on clinical evidence from Kaiser Permanente and Purdue University.

166 Cong. Rec. H779 (Feb. 5, 2020).  The measure now moves to the Senate.