WASHINGTON — Combat veterans with less-than-honorable discharges may soon be eligible for urgent mental health care from Veterans Affairs Department facilities if the Senate follows a House decision earlier this week.
“This House sent a critical message to our men and women in uniform. That message is that you are not alone. We are here to help those suffering from the ‘invisible’ wounds of war,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said Tuesday after the House passed the bill.
The bill, which has been sent to the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs for consideration, would require Veterans Affairs to provide vets with mental health assessments as well as treatment for urgent mental health care needs like suicide risk. It also would mandate a VA study to evaluate the effect of combat experience on veterans’ mental health.
Under current law, combat veterans with honorable discharges already have access to the assessments and treatment. But those who were discharged under other-than-honorable conditions do not have access to VA mental health care. This bill would enable many of those veterans to use VA services, although it would still exclude those with dishonorable or bad conduct discharges.
The National Veterans Foundation praised the House passage of the mental health bill. “It’s been our experience that some veterans with combat-related PTSD have unfairly received less-than-honorable discharges directly connected to their mental health issues,” said NVF Development Director Bill Morgan. “They need and deserve VA mental health services.”
According to the VA, roughly 20 veterans commit suicide each day, and veterans have a 22 percent higher risk than other Americans. VA Secretary David Shulkin has described suicide prevention as his “top clinical priority.”
The expansion of mental health services is always a good thing, said Nathaniel Counts, director at advocacy group Mental Health America: “To the extent this [bill] is filling a problematic gap, it’s great, and hopefully we can totally fill that gap for everyone.”
The House passed Coffman’s bill along with a slew of other veterans’ bills, including two bills that would make it easier for veterans to receive organ transplants and another that would enable VA health professionals to treat patients remotely using telecommunications technology.