AFTER HEARING FROM VETERANS DENIED MENTAL HEALTH CARE, MURPHY DEMANDS VA COMPLY WITH HONOR OUR COMMITMENT ACT

WASHINGTON – Following reports that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is continuing to deny veterans with Other-than-Honorable (OTH) discharges mental and behavioral health services after passage of the Honor Our Commitment Act, author of the legislation U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) led a group of senators in sending a letter to U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie demanding that the VA comply with the law. 

In the letter, the senators expressed their frustrations over allegations that VA facilities in Connecticut and Washington are turning away veterans or giving incorrect information on eligibility for care. According to reports, the VA is also failing to properly train personnel and sufficiently inform veterans about the new care they are now entitled to. The senator additionally heard from VA officials that VA IT systems are still incorrectly categorizing OTH veterans as ineligible for care, causing confusion for thousands of veterans when arriving at VA facilities to seek care.   

 “Press reports and information provided directly to our offices allege that VA personnel at the Puget Sound, WA and West Haven, CT Veterans Medical Centers have turned away OTH veterans or provided incorrect information. OTH veterans, many of whom have never entered a VA facility before, were in some cases told they were ineligible for care or incorrectly eligible only for short-term care under the outdated 2017 Emergency Mental Health Care directive,” the senators wrote.

The senators continued, “The VA must immediately update its systems, retrain VA personnel on the eligibility changes under the Honor Our Commitment Act, and conduct routine inspections of VA intake personnel to ensure they are providing the correct information to OTH veterans.”  

The Honor Our Commitment Act introduced by Murphy and former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rouke (D-Texas) requires the VA, for the first time, to provide mental and behavioral health care to hundreds of thousands of at-risk combat veterans and sexual assault victims who received OTH discharges, also sometimes referred to as ‘Bad Papers’ discharges. Before it became law last year, over 500,000 veterans were presumptively ineligible for any services from the VA. Last year, Murphy expressed frustration with the VA’s progress in implementing the law and called on the VA speed up notification of  veterans of as required by the new law. 

U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Veterans Affairs Committee; Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii); Patty Murray (D-Wash.); and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) joined Murphy in sending this letter.

The full text of the letter is available here and below:

 

The Honorable Robert Wilkie

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

810 Vermont Avenue, NW 

Washington DC 20420

Dear Mr. Secretary:

Recent reports indicate that the Department of Veterans Affairs has failed to properly train VA personnel and conduct outreach to veterans after Congress passed the bipartisan Honor Our Commitment Act (38 U.S. Code § 1712I) last year, which provides mental and behavioral health care to certain veterans with Other-than-Honorable (OTH) discharges. We are deeply frustrated that, as a result, thousands of veterans who are legally owed mental health care are unaware of their eligibility or have been denied care at VA facilities. 

Press reports and information provided directly to our offices allege that VA personnel at the Puget Sound, WA and West Haven, CT Veterans Medical Centers have turned away OTH veterans or provided incorrect information. OTH veterans, many of whom have never entered a VA facility before, were in some cases told they were ineligible for care or incorrectly eligible only for short-term care under the outdated 2017 Emergency Mental Health Care directive. In addition, VA personnel have indicated that the VA’s IT systems still automatically categorize OTH veterans as ineligible for care. It is troubling that 14 months after passage the VA still has not updated its IT systems with a fix to indicate that these veterans may be eligible for certain types of care. The VA must immediately update its systems, retrain VA personnel on the eligibility changes under the Honor Our Commitment Act, and conduct routine inspections of VA intake personnel to ensure they are providing the correct information to OTH veterans.

The VA must also conduct a public outreach campaign to educate veterans, Veterans Service Organizations and the broader public about the new law. We recognize that the VA finally complied with the law by mailing 477,404 letters to OTH veterans’ last known address in January, but the VA must do more than the bare minimum. Despite mental health being a top priority for the VA, and receiving substantial budget increases, the VA Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs has failed to reach out to OTH veterans. 

We remain concerned that the Department’s failure to properly train VA employees and conduct public outreach puts hundreds of thousands of veterans at risk. OTH veterans face a much greater risk of mental health disorders, homelessness, and suicide. We urge you to move quickly to fix these failures to ensure veterans are receiving correct information from the VA. Thank you for your attention to this matter, and we look forward to your response.  

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