Bill Expanding Vets' Access to Mental Health Care Is Resurrected

Help is available for people suffering from depression. (Army Photo: Courtesy photo)

A bill that would give veterans access to mental health care despite a less-than-honorable discharge is back in Congress.

Reps. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, and Derek Kilmer, a Washington Democrat, are leading the bipartisan reintroduction of the Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Healthcare Act, Coffman's office announced Tuesday.

The legislation, H.R. 918, would require the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide initial mental health assessments and "urgent mental health care services to veterans at risk of suicide or harming others, even if they have an other than honorable discharge," otherwise known as a "bad paper" discharge, the announcement said.

"It's important that we give all of our combat veterans, irrespective of the discharges they receive, access to mental health care through the Veterans [Affairs Department]," Coffman told during a phone call Wednesday.

Coffman, the only member of Congress to serve in both the first Iraq War and Operation Iraqi Freedom, said of the "bad-paper" separations, "I question the nature of the discharges in the first place, and I'm exploring that."

Veterans who received a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge would still be ineligible from accessing the services.

The bill would also require an independent study of veteran suicide to review effects of combat service on suicide rates; the rate and method of suicide among veterans who have received health care from the VA; and the rate and method of suicide among veterans who have not received health care from the agency, the announcement said.

Coffman pursued a similar bill last year, but it didn't pass the House. The previous legislation included language that linked a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge to a general court-martial, but those types of separations can also result from a special court-martial. The new bill excludes any reference to court-martial "to avoid confusion," spokesman Daniel Bucheli said.

Coffman said this time around "there is a greater awareness of this issue," especially because David Phillip Roe, a physician representing Tennessee's 1st Congressional District, is now the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

In addition, the bill has 12 sponsors.

"So I think it stands a good chance of getting passed this time around," Coffman said. "We seem to have fewer and fewer veterans in the Congress, so I think it's difficult sometimes for them to understand the culture of the military. I think [members in Congress] are very supportive of the notion of providing mental health care to veterans even if they don't understand the nature of these discharges."

High Ground Veterans Advocacy, a grassroots organization training veterans to become leaders and activists in their local communities, has advocated for a fairness for veterans coalition of more than 50 veterans service officers, mobile service officers and veterans legal services clinics surrounding the issue, said founder and chairman Kristofer Goldsmith.

"We're calling on the Armed Services Committee and the Veterans Affairs Committee to hold hearings on the issue of 'bad paper,' " said Goldsmith, who also serves as the assistant director for policy and government affairs for the Vietnam Veterans of America.

"We've seen a lot of positive action from the Congress and there is bipartisan recognition that the issue exists, which is wonderful, but until the VSOs and MSOs are invited to testify at a hearing alongside the boards of corrections of military records from each of the branches, we're not going to be able to get as much work done on this issue as we'd like to," he said, referring to veterans service organizations and military service organizations.

According to a National Public Radio study, roughly 22,000 Army veterans confirmed to have a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury (TBI) were issued "bad paper" between 2009 and 2015. The Army investigated the claim, but found nothing wrong with how commanders chose to remove soldiers coming back from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Coffman, who served in the Army before retiring from the Marine Corps as a major, said he believes the stigma surrounding personality disorders has become a way for the Defense Department to take disciplinary measures instead of offering proper health care. In some cases, he said, the action could be tied to how a specific service works through a drawdown in its ranks.

"It seemed to always come down on military personnel returning from combat zones, and I just thought this was inappropriate. I think in the past what [DoD] has done is say, 'OK. We're going to do a reduction in force and … deny people re-enlistment or give people early outs.' But to give these 'bad paper' discharges to combat veterans and then [say] no as a result ... they have no access to mental health care, and that's really problematic," Coffman said.

Goldsmith too said there needs to be more action from within the department. "It's disappointing that [DoD] thinks they can fix this problem just by changing the narrative in the press shop," he said. The dialogue pendulum continues to swing from DoD to the VA and vice versa, which too often turns into "the blame game" without firm action.

"Congress needs to hold both of them to account in a coordinated effort," he said.

"There's a long history of members of Congress trying to address this issue, and I think in this year, in 2017, we're going to kind of hit a -- I hope -- critical mass where members of Congress who don't focus on military and veterans issues will realize how important this is, and they'll join the fight as well," Goldsmith said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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