VA to start offering mental health care to 'bad paper' veterans

WASHINGTON -- Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said his department will start offering mental health services for veterans with other-than-honorable dismissals as soon as possible, saying the issue is too important to wait for congressional intervention. 

“We have some authorities to do that,” he told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Tuesday night. “So many veterans are just disconnected from our system. The 20 a day committing suicide are not getting the care they need. 

“We’re going to do whatever we can. We’re going to work with you. This is unacceptable, and we shouldn’t have to wait for Congress to force the issue.”

Veterans advocates for years have pushed for that type of care for the estimated 300,000 veterans who have been separated from the military with so-called “bad paper” discharges, making them ineligible for a range of VA health and education benefits. 

They argue that a significant portion of those cases are troops dismissed for erratic behavior or substance abuse, problems that are often symptoms of more serious, undiagnosed mental health issues. Denying those former troops access to mental health care dramatically increases their chances of suicide, they say.

After the hearing, Shulkin said he hopes to have the new offerings available within a few months, with instructions for individual hospitals on outreach and urgent care treatment options for those veterans. He also credited Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman with “changing my mind” on the issue. 

Legislation would halt bad military discharges due to PTSD or TBI

Last month, Coffman introduced legislation requiring the VA to offer mental health care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges, calling it an urgent public health need. Coffman praised the news, said it caught him by surprise.  

Shulkin’s announcement was met with a loud round of applause from the lawmakers and veterans advocates at the Tuesday evening hearing. 

Kris Goldsmith, founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy, has pushed the issue in recent years and called Tuesday’s announcement a critical step forward for thousands of veterans. He attempted suicide in 2007 while in the Army, but was given a general discharge instead of treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Advocates, lawmakers push for answers to problem of 'bad paper' discharges

“To hear that the VA is finally going to abide by the 1944 GI Bill of Rights is fantastic,” said Goldsmith, who also works as assistant director for policy at Vietnam Veterans of America. “Since I ‘came out’ with my bad-paper story ten years ago, I've had countless veterans reach out to me for help. 

“I'm so glad they'll finally be able to get help where they deserve to: at the Department of Veterans Affairs.” 

Donnelly's Military Mental Health Package Passes.


U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, says his latest effort on military suicide prevention aims to help servicemembers and veterans connect with mental health providers in their communities.

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INDIANAPOLIS -- U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, says his latest effort on military suicide prevention aims to help servicemembers and veterans connect with mental health providers in their communities.

The effortfollows up on Donnelly’s 2014 legislation that allowed all military members to receive annual mental health screenings.

Donnelly says his latest package of bills, recently signed into law, helps servicemembers find mental health providers attuned to their specific needs.

Donnelly says one way is to expand training beyond traditional mental health providers.

“Not just Department of Defense psychiatrists and psychologists; not just private psychiatrists and psychologists. We’re trying to add people in with physician assistants as well,” he says.

Donnelly’s legislation also creates a designation for private providers that receive specialized training for dealing with servicemembers and their unique issues.

Indiana National Guard Behavioral Health Officer Scott Edwards says that’s particularly useful for the National Guard, which he calls a community-embedded organization.

“It’s an organization that’s not authorized to provide direct treatment to servicemembers so it only makes sense that we reach out to civilian providers that live and work in these communities as well,” Edward says.

Servicemembers will have access to a public registry of private providers who earn the special designation.

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