Rep. Lauren Davis to introduce legislation that would create more jobs and opportunities for Washington peer support specialists

Rep. Lauren Davis (D-Shoreline) plans to introduce legislation that would create more jobs and opportunities for Washington peer support specialists when the legislative session begins in January.

 

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Davis has been seeking input from those in the industry to finalize her bill, which she will introduce to the House Health Care & Wellness Committee during the upcoming legislative session. The bill aims to establish certified peer specialists as a recognized profession under Title 18.

“Peers are nowhere to be found in that,” Davis told State of Reform. “They are a legitimate health profession but are not categorized as such now. It would create parity and recognize them as a legitimate health profession in the eyes of the law.”

Peer support specialists work with adults and youths suffering from mental health or substance use disorders. They often provide guidance based on their past life experiences while working with patients, which makes them relatable peers for those who need support.

The bill would help address the state’s behavioral health workforce shortage by creating more jobs for peers and expanding access to peer services. Peers are currently limited to serving only Medicaid recipients and working strictly at community behavioral health agencies, however, so youths and adults with commercial insurance have no access to their services. And peers who work in other settings, like emergency departments and behavioral health urgent care, cannot bill insurance companies for their services.

“It would create a lot more peer jobs,” Davis said. “Peers are so fundamental to the recovery process. So it’s problematic that people who need services can’t get them.”

The legislation would lead to peer job openings in settings that bill commercial carriers, like urgent care, Davis said. That would also be financially beneficial for them.

“Those types of settings tend to pay more than hospital-based settings,” Davis said. “Currently the only place peers exist is community behavioral health. So it would mean more jobs and opportunities for them to work in different environments, and also an increase in wages. As soon as they are on Title 18 they could bill for peer services.”

The bill would also establish a career ladder by creating a peer supervisor position, Davis said. 

“Peers have sort of been told the way up is to build a clinical degree,” Davis said. “But peer work is distinctly nonclinical. They don’t diagnose, they don’t treat. So to suggest the only pathway for elevating your career is through a clinical degree is an entirely different trajectory. We want to give people drawn to peer work an opportunity to advance.”

The bill would provide a creative solution to help supplement the behavioral healthcare workforce, as there is currently a surplus of workers in the peer support field. The Washington State Health Care Authority’s Peer Support Program had more than 1,400 people on a wait list to acquire certified peer counselor training in July.

Peers often get left out of behavioral health conversations because they may have past experiences of incarceration, homelessness, or substance use disorders.

“But in this field, that’s exactly why they’re qualified,” Davis said. “It’s the only profession in behavioral health where we have a surplus of workers. You can’t produce a clinician quickly, but you can produce peers quickly.”

Davis presented similar legislation, previously known as House Bill 1865, to the legislature last January, but it died in committee. She said the bill has been amended substantially, and she believes it will garner a lot of support this year.

“It’s had a lot of feedback,” Davis said. “There’s significant support from the community. The bill was drafted by peers and has broad support in the legislature, in part because most members have come to understand what a peer is and does. People now realize peers as a critical piece of health solutions moving forward. So the legislature is very pro–peer in general, and believes in the power and capability of peers.”