The $1.3 trillion spending package that passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Thursday includes a new provision that would give more veterans access to mental health care.
Bills had been introduced in both the House and Senate over the past year to provide veterans who have an "other than honorable" discharge access to care they were previously denied. Lawmakers drafted a compromise that made it into the omnibus spending bill this week.
"It is critical that our men and women in uniform know they can reach out to the [Department of Veterans Affairs] for help when they come home from a combat deployment," said Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican and Marine Corps combat veteran who had sponsored one of the bills.
"We particularly need to watch out for those suffering from 'invisible' wounds that may lead to behavioral and other mental health conditions," he said in a statement Thursday.
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Coffman, however, voted against the overall spending bill even though language from his mental health care legislation was included.
Currently, individuals who have other-than-honorable discharges, known as "bad paper," are not eligible for veteran benefits beyond some emergency mental health services. The provision would require the VA to provide initial mental health assessments and services as deemed necessary, including for those at risk of suicide or of harming others, regardless of whether the individual has a bad paper discharge.
However, veterans who received a dishonorable or a bad-conduct discharge stemming from a court-martial would still be ineligible to access the services.
High Ground Veterans Advocacy, a grass-roots organization training veterans to become leaders and activists in their local communities, has advocated for the measure.
"These reforms would remove the current VA requirement that veterans with OTH discharges be in a state of 'urgent' or emergency before being able to get help, and marks the first time that Congress is willing to back [VA Secretary David] Shulkin's initiative to provide aid to veterans previously locked out of the health care system designed for them," said High Ground founder and Chairman Kristofer Goldsmith on Thursday.
Last March, Shulkin testified to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs that the department intended to give veterans with bad paper more mental health care privileges.
"We are going to go and start providing mental health care to those with other-than-honorable discharges," he said at the time.
Goldsmith said, "These reforms would create a more transparent and user-friendly process, and requires the Department of Defense to coordinate their efforts to ensure that veterans with OTH discharges aren't simply abandoned after being kicked out of the military.
"It's important to note that these reforms are focused on veterans who were administratively discharged without the due process rights of a court-martial, which is the vast majority of veterans with bad paper -- both from the Post-9/11 generation and all of those from earlier service periods," he said in a statement.
The Senate has until midnight Friday to pass the omnibus spending bill to avert another government shutdown. If it passes, the mental health care provision would become law.