Senators want details on VA's plan to provide mental health care for ‘bad paper' vets

by Nikki Wentling, Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON – Eight Democrats in the Senate are seeking more details from the Department of Veterans Affairs about an announcement last week that the VA would provide urgent mental health care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

In a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, the senators wrote the announcement had sparked interest from some veterans with other-than-honorable discharges who are now scrambling to find more information about what services the VA will provide. Other-than-honorable discharges, also known as “bad paper,” prevent veterans from receiving federal benefits, such as health care, disability payments, education and housing assistance.

“[M]any of the veterans who could be eligible under this expansion are now seeking information and treatment after hearing your statements,” the senators’ letter reads. “These are veterans with elevated risks for substance use issues, homelessness, criminal court involvement and suicide, and time is always crucial in connecting them to treatment options.”

Kristofer Goldsmith, who works with Vietnam Veterans of America and has been a longtime advocate for veterans with bad paper, said “tons of veterans” have reached out to him and the veterans group with questions since Shulkin’s announcement.

“These are folks who have been in desperate need of help some, some of them for decades,” Goldsmith said. “Some of them were in Vietnam, discharged in the late ‘60s and have been needing help ever since.”

The letter was sent Friday, and Tester’s office said they had not received a response as of Tuesday. A VA spokesman said Wednesday he wasn’t certain whether the department’s legislative office had seen the letter yet.

It was signed by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Shulkin made the announcement about offering mental health care to veterans with bad paper during testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on March 7, and it received praise and applause. Lawmakers and veterans advocates have long argued servicemembers with bad paper were, in many cases, unjustly released from the military because of mental health issues. Some advocates have urged the VA for years to provide benefits to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

But now, the senators want details – and soon.

“What they’re asking is what we need to know,” Goldsmith said.

He said the most important question being asked is whether any preventative mental health services would be offered or if veterans with bad paper would be allowed to receive services only when they’re in an urgent crisis.

Speaking to the House committee last week, Shulkin said mental health care would be provided to veterans with bad paper who urgently needed it. The VA specified in a news release the following day that veterans would be allowed to receive treatment starting in “early summer” at VA emergency rooms, vet centers or through the Veterans Crisis Line. The VA offers counseling at approximately 300 vet centers nationwide.

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“Will they stop at urgent mental health care for veterans about to commit suicide or provide care to actually overcome things like post-traumatic stress disorder, [traumatic brain injury] and [military sexual trauma]?” Goldsmith asked. “You can’t wait until they’re suicidal, help them for a week, and then push them back out with no resources.”

The senators also inquired about whether the Veterans Crisis Line and in- and out-patient mental health care facilities had the capacity to handle a larger group of veterans. In its release, the VA estimated there were 500,000 veterans with other-than-honorable discharges.

The senators also want to know whether the VA needs more authority or resources from Congress to allow veterans with other-than-honorable discharges to get care.

“These questions must be addressed quickly, and the answers must be communicated proactively to all veterans immediately,” the letter states.

The letter urged Shulkin to consult with veterans organizations when creating a plan.

Goldsmith is also calling on lawmakers on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to hold hearings before the VA presents a plan, in order to gather input from veterans and military organizations and others who have received other-than-honorable discharges.

“What we’re telling [veterans] is that they need to make their voices heard,” Goldsmith said. “Vets with bad paper have been closeted for decades, and now is the time that [President Donald] Trump’s administration, the VA and members of Congress need to hear them.”