In an attempt to prevent suicide among veterans, provisions for the urgent mental health care needs of former service members with other-than-honorable (OTH) administrative charges will be expanded, Veterans Affairs Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin announced Tuesday.
"This is a major step forward in helping veterans," president of the Veteran Business Association Bill Sparks said. "For a long time, an other-than-honorable discharge, or a bad conduct discharge closed a lot of doors. This is a major step forward."
The announcement came as Shulkin testified in a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing. "The president and I have made it clear that suicide prevention is one of our top priorities," he said. "We know the rate of death by suicide among veterans who do not use VA care is increasing at a greater rate than veterans who use VA care."
"It has been a long time coming," local veteran Dave Nevarez said. "I am interested to see as most VA's are over tasked."
The move marks the first time a VA secretary has implemented an initiative specifically focused on expanding access to assist OTH service members who are in mental health distress and might be at risk for suicide, or other adverse behaviors.
"This is a national emergency that requires bold actions," Shulkin said. "We must, and we will, do all that we can to help former service members who may be at risk. When we say even one veteran suicide is one too many, we mean it."
It is estimated that there are more than 500,000 former service members with OTH discharges. As part of the proposal, former OTH service members would be able to seek treatment at a VA emergency department, a vet center, or through the Veteran Crisis Line. "The amount of veterans we have discharging here is about 600 a month," Nevarez said. "I don't see it getting any better any time soon, with the difficulties we have hiring physicians and behavioral health specialist."
"Our goal is simple: to save lives," Shulkin said. "Veterans who are in crisis should receive help immediately. Far too many veterans have fallen victim to suicide, roughly 20 every day. Far too many families are left behind asking themselves what more could have been done. The time for action is now.”
Before finalizing the plan in early summer, Shulkin said he will meet with Congress, veterans service organizations and Department of Defense officials to determine the best way to get former service members the care that they need.
However, there is a long list of disqualification for veteran with OTH discharges who cannot get the care, and they include: being a conscientious objector who refused to perform military duty, wear the uniform, comply with lawful order to competent military authorities, sentence of a general court-martial, resignation of an officer for the good of the service, desertion, requesting release from service as an alien during a period of hostilities, or absence without official leave (AWOL) for the continuous period of 180 days or more, without evidence of compelling circumstance.
This means that if an individual is discharged for any of the above reasons, the law prohibits the VA from paying any benefits.
“I look forward to working with leaders like (Rep.) Mike Coffman from Colorado, who has been a champion for OTH service members,” Shulkin said. "I am grateful for his commitment to our nation’s veterans and for helping me better understand the urgency of getting this right.”
Veterans in crisis should call the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-8255 (press 1), or text 838255.