WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs will begin making mental health care services available to veterans with less-than-honorable discharges who urgently need it, VA Secretary David Shulkin told lawmakers Tuesday night.
"We are going to go and start providing mental health care to those with other-than-honorable discharges," Shulkin testified to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. "I don't want to wait. We want to start doing that.
Discharges that are other-than-honorable, including a "general" discharge, are known as "bad paper" and can prevent veterans from receiving federal benefits, such as health care, disability payments, education and housing assistance.
Lawmakers and veterans advocates have said service members with bad paper were, in many cases, unjustly released from the military because of mental health issues. They estimate 22,000 veterans with mental illnesses have received other-than-honorable discharges since 2009.
Shulkin's announcement Tuesday follows a recent push from Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., to force the VA to provide emergency mental health care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges. Coffman introduced a bill last month requiring the VA to do so.
Shulkin credited Coffman for "changing my whole view of this."
The plan was announced in response to a question during the hearing about how Shulkin would attempt to prevent veteran suicides. In addition to providing care to veterans with bad paper, the VA secretary also told lawmakers that he wanted to hire approximately 1,000 more mental health care providers.
"Our concern is those are some of the people that right now aren't getting the services and contributing to this unbelievably unacceptable number of veterans suicides," Shulkin said.
He said he's notifying medical centers about the change and that he'd like to implement a program sometime in the next few months.
The announcement garnered applause from some congressmen and advocates present at Tuesday's hearing.
"So many veterans we see are disconnected from our system, and that's the frustration," Shulkin said. "We want to do as much as we can."
A measure that Coffman championed last year, the Fairness for Veterans Act, made it into the National Defense Authorization Act. It requires Defense Department panels that review discharges to consider medical evidence from a veteran's health care provider. Panels would have to review each case presuming that post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, sexual assault trauma or another service-related condition led to the discharge.
It also aims to give the benefit of the doubt to veterans who seek to correct their military records.
Kristofer Goldsmith, president of High Ground Veterans Advocacy, has fought for years for discharge upgrades for veterans with bad paper. After hearing from officials with military review boards during a congressional hearing last week, Goldsmith said the Defense Department "isn't doing anything proactive to help."
Goldsmith, along with Vietnam Veterans of America – where he also works, has asked President Donald Trump to pardon all post-9/11 veterans who were administratively separated from the military and did not face a court-martial.