Bill Would Expand Health Care for Vets With 'Bad Paper' Discharges

FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, file photo, an American flag flies over Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016, file photo, an American flag flies over Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

A measure ordering the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide mental health care to veterans with "bad paper" discharges was given a final push by lawmakers Wednesday before moving to the full House for a vote.

On July 5, the VA began providing mental health "emergency stabilization care" to service members with other-than-honorable-discharges under a plan announced by VA Secretary David Shulkin to lawmakers in March. That program, which is available at all VA medical centers, gives emergency mental health care to those veterans for at least 90 days, including inpatient, residential and outpatient care, VA officials announced.

Other-than-honorable or "bad paper" discharges are often handed down to troops as the result of what's seen as minor misconduct and can block veterans from receiving health care and other benefits from the VA. But veteran advocates say that, in many cases, those discharges are given to troops suffering from undiagnosed mental conditions who urgently need help.

The measure approved by the House on Wednesday would not only move into law the requirement to provide mental health help to those veterans, but remove a qualification that the help requested be an "emergency." Doing so will "ensure that veterans will not receive this life saving mental health care only in cases of crises," said Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Texas Democrat who proposed the change.

Rep. Mike Coffman, a Marine Corps veteran and Colorado Republican who has long championed the mental health help expansion, said providing this assistance is key to reducing the veteran suicide rate.

"At a time when an average of 20 veterans take their lives daily, it's time we connect the dots between the discharge characterization and mental health, so those veterans can access life-saving mental health care," he said.

The proposal now will head to the House for a vote. Similar legislation has yet to be introduced in the Senate.

-- Amy Bushatz can be reached at amy.bushatz@military.com.

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