Lawmakers want Gov. Kathleen C. Hochul to deviate from her predecessor and fund a state 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 post traumatic stress disorder, 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 Terror 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 budget deadlines April 1 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 spokesman 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 Wednesday encouraged Gov. 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,” said Barrett, adding 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,” the assemblywoman added.
Barrett introduced a bill to establish a state Division of Veteran 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.
“Dwyer Program monies must not be used as a budgetary bargaining chip, as former Gov. Cuomo continually did in his perpetual playing of politics,” said state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, a member of the Senate Veterans, Homeland Security and Military Affairs Committee. “The days of veterans and veteran advocates having to come to the State Capitol to fight tooth-and-nail for Dwyer program funding must end. These monies should already be established in the annual state budget to further support and strengthen this proven program that helps America’s true heroes.”
Jordan has been a staunch advocate for the program since she took office in January 2019, and said she hopes Hochul includes the Dwyer program and increased funding for the successful initiative in her upcoming 2022-23 budget proposal.
“Our heroic veterans fought for us — now it’s our turn to fight for them,” Jordan said.
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-1, introduced a bill in Congress in 2019, co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-21, to require the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs establish the Dwyer peer support program nationwide and create grants for peer-to-peer mental health programs for veterans.
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough, a member of President Joe Biden’s cabinet, visited Columbia County’s Dwyer program office Oct. 19 to strengthen federal services and address issues burdening U.S. servicemembers.
Columbia County receives $100,000 to run the program, which serves veterans in Columbia and Greene counties.
Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Flaherty, director of Veterans Services in Columbia County and a Vietnam combat veteran, has spearheaded the program in the southern Capital Region and leaves his cell phone on 24/7 to help servicemembers in need.
“The Dwyer Program has saved veterans lives under our mentorship,” said Flaherty, 75. “All through the virus, pandemic my mentors stayed in touch with the veterans. Even myself, I came in every Sunday and called all the veterans, their families, the widows, to make sure they were OK. And there were two different occasions that I had veterans who were thinking of suicide and I was able to get them into treatment programs. “
Flaherty rallies with lawmakers in Albany about the program’s success each year, encouraging officials to fund it for each county statewide.
“We’re trying to get it so its a line item each year, and not something we have to go in and negotiate for,” he said.
Reporter Natasha Vaughn contributed to this story.