Veterans denied basic mental health care service benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs because of an "other than honorable" discharge may soon be able to receive the care they need.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday unanimously passed the Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Healthcare Act, spearheaded by Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican and Marine Corps combat Veteran.
"Today, this House sent a critical message to our men and women in uniform," Coffman said in a release. "That message is that you are not alone. We are here to help those suffering from the 'invisible' wounds of war.
"The passage of [this bill] is an important bipartisan effort to ensure that our combat Veterans receive the mental health care services they need. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to get this bill across the finish line," he said.
The legislation, H.R. 918, would require the VA to provide initial mental health assessments and services deemed necessary, including for those at risk of suicide and or of harming others, regardless of whether the individual has an "other than honorable" discharge.
Currently, individuals who have such discharges, known as "bad paper," are not eligible for Veteran benefits beyond some emergency mental health services. Veterans who received a dishonorable or bad-conduct discharge would still be ineligible to access the services.
"It's important that we give all of our combat Veterans, irrespective of the discharges they receive, access to mental health care through the Veterans [Affairs Department]," Coffman told Military.com during an interview in February, when he reintroduced the bill.
He is the only House member to serve in both the first Iraq War and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
At the time, Coffman said of the "bad-paper" separations, "I question the nature of the discharges in the first place, and I'm exploring that."
A May 2017 Government Accountability Office report found 62 percent of the 91,764 service members separated for minor forms of misconduct between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2015 had been diagnosed within two years prior to separation with post- traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other conditions that could be associated with their misconduct, according to the release.
The bill applies to those with other-than-honorable discharges who served served in a combat zone or area of hostilities; piloted unmanned aircraft; or experienced a military sexual trauma.
The VA secretary can sign off on outside care if specific care at a VA facility is clinically inadvisable; or if the VA is unable to provide necessary mental health care due to geographic location barriers.
H.R. 918 also requires the VA to establish a formal "character of service" determination process, triggering reviews of the "character of discharge" for potential eligibility of VA benefits.
High Ground Veterans Advocacy, a grassroots organization training Veterans to become leaders and activists in their local communities, has advocated for the move.
"There are some Veterans out there who've been waiting for this day for decades -- but there's still a fight ahead of us," said High Ground founder and chairman Kristofer Goldsmith.
"Until the Senate passes this bill, and the president signs it -- some of our nation's most vulnerable Veterans, who served between Vietnam and today's Forever Wars, are being denied the holistic care that they deserve from the VA," he said in an email.
Goldsmith continued, "Today, the House recognized that the United States has failed to care for hundreds of thousands of Veterans in the way that they deserve -- Veterans who were administratively discharged and stripped of a lifetime of essential benefits without the right to due process.
“But the problem isn't yet fixed. Until Congress holds hearings dedicated to looking at the problem of bad-paper discharges, we won't have all available solutions on the table," he said.