Twenty veterans a day are committing suicide, and 14 of those we know are not receiving healthcare from the VA. This figure shows an unacceptable gap in healthcare coverage for our nation’s most vulnerable veterans. A meaningful step toward closing that gap would be to extend mental healthcare benefits to those former service members with “other-than-honorable” (or, “bad paper”) discharges, which currently affects 500,000 former service members. Most veterans with this discharge status are unable to access healthcare services from the VA, and often are unable to appeal the nature of their discharge in a timely way. In fact, over 125,000 veterans who served since 2001 are unable to access basic veteran services, even though the VA has never completed an evaluation of their service.
This is especially troubling given that many of these veterans with bad paper discharges had diagnosed mental health issues while still in service. According to figures acquired by NPR in October of 2015 under the Freedom of Information Act, the Army had been improperly dismissing soldiers with diagnosed mental health issues at an alarming rate. The figures show that since January 2009, the Army has “separated” 22,000 soldiers for “misconduct” after they came back from Iraq and Afghanistan and were diagnosed with mental health problems or TBI. These are the veterans who need access to mental healthcare the most and due to the nature of their discharge are prevented from doing so.
Two weeks ago, the VA Secretary announced that it would begin providing “urgent care” mental health services for veterans with bad paper. Unfortunately, I have since learned that the services they intend to offer will be limited.
This is why today, along with Senator Chris Murphy, I introduced the Honor Our Commitment Act of 2017.
This bipartisan, bicameral bill would make it possible for veterans with bad paper discharges to get full access to mental healthcare at the VA if they were diagnosed with a mental health issue while in service or within five years of leaving service. In order to prevent another backlogged appeals process in which veterans are waiting to receive care, the bill also ensures that veterans receive a decision in a timely way and requires the VA to justify to Congress any denial of benefits that they issue to a veteran.