Commentary

Providing Mental Health Care to All Veterans Regardless of Discharge Status

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During his testimony before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on March 7, 2017, Secretary of Veterans Affairs David J. Shulkin, MD, expressed his intent to remove the administrative barrier prohibiting other-than-honorably (OTH) discharged service members from receiving VHA mental health care. This is the first time in VA history to integrate those veterans whose OTH discharge status had previously disenfranchised them.

In his comments to Congress, Dr. Shulkin voiced his gratitude to Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO) for helping him to “better understand the urgency of getting this right.” In March 2016, Rep. Coffman introduced the

Veterans Fairness Act, which would permit OTH discharged combat veterans to obtain emergency mental health services. Rep. Coffman cited that 22,000 U.S. Army veterans were discharged for misconduct since 2009, most with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) or mental illness. 1 Veterans often refer to OTH discharges as having “bad paper.” In 2013, National Public Radio produced a series on OTH discharged service members that underscored their struggles. 2 Those reports estimated that more than 100,000 veterans left the service with OTH discharges in the decade before the story. 2

These individuals, many of whom have already lost a great deal as a result of their military service, lose much more when they are OTH discharged. They are unable to apply for the GI Bill, which enables them to further their education and livelihood; they cannot get a VA home loan to help them house their families; and they are ineligible for disability even for combat-related conditions like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and TBI. Most damaging of all, until Dr. Shulkin’s historic announcement, they also could not get VA health care. In effect, OTH discharge status creates a second class of service men and women, even though the discharge may have been the result of injury and illness related to their time in uniform. That consequence makes Dr. Shulkin’s proposal not only an administrative change, but also an ethical decision regarding the civil and human rights of service members, which is the reason most major veterans service and advocacy organizations have long endorsed it.

Although research on OTH discharged veterans has been limited, studies have found a high rate of mental health problems. The OTH discharged service members are significantly represented in the cohorts who face some of the most serious public health problems that the VA has tried to address through new programs that were initiated during the prior administration and continued by the current one, such as ending homelessness and preventing suicide.

A 2017 study compared rates of mental illness and substance use among veterans with routine discharges with those who had nonroutine separations from the military. 3 The results showed that there was a higher rate of almost every psychiatric diagnosis in the nonroutine discharges; the rates were particularly high for those discharged for misconduct. 3 Because of the established correlation of multiple deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and incidence of TBI, PTSD, and substance use and the association of these disorders with behaviors that contribute to OTH discharge status, a clear duty to care for these men and women emerges.

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