WASHINGTON —U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, released a statement after the release of the FY18 Omnibus Appropriations bill, which includes Murphy’s Honor Our Commitment Act. This critical legislation requires the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to, for the first time, provide mental and behavioral health care to hundreds of thousands of at-risk combat veterans and sexual assault victims who received Other-than-Honorable (OTH) discharges, sometimes referred to as ‘Bad Paper’ discharges. These veterans are currently denied access to mental health and behavioral health services through the VA. The measure’s inclusion in the omnibus bill resulted from Murphy’s successful push to add the Honor Our Commitment Act as an amendment to the FY2018 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill in the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee.
Murphy first introduced the bill with U.S. Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Senator Brian Schatz (D-Hi.). U.S. Representatives Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Mike Bost (R-Ill.) introduced the legislation in the House. Murphy worked during conference negotiations with Schatz, Tester, O’Rourke, and U.S. Representative Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) to craft a compromise that expands access for these at-risk veterans.
“People in Connecticut believe that the men and women who risk their lives for our country and suffer the wounds of war should not be shut out of the VA system and denied the care they need. When I heard of soldiers who had been given bad paper discharges after they were diagnosed with PTSD or TBI, I knew I had to do something to make sure our government lived up to its obligations to our vets. I worked hard on the Appropriations Committee to pass the Honor Our Commitment Act, and I’m thrilled we got this critical expansion of mental and behavioral health care for hundreds of thousands of veterans included in this bill,” Murphy said.
“The inclusion of bad-paper reforms in this bill marks a major shift towards justice for those veterans who have for so long been denied it,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy. He continued, “Senators Murphy and Tester, with Congressmen O’Rourke and Coffman, as well as Secretary Shulkin, have shown that no veteran who has sacrificed for their country should ever be forgotten. I look forward to these provisions inspired by the Honor Our Commitment Act being signed into law, and knowing that we’re moving past the days where our government could unfairly deny mental health services to veterans in need.”
Murphy has led Senate efforts to push the VA to change their policies and ensure that discharged veterans with mental illness continue to receive the critical benefits and mental health care they need. For over three years, Murphy made the case to the VA that they should provide mental health benefits to service members with OTH discharges. In 2015, he led 11 other senators in calling on the Pentagon to conduct a full U.S. Army Inspector General investigation into the thousands of OTH discharges, and successfully convinced the Army to commit to reforming its policies. In March 2016, Murphy argued that the VA had the authority to provide emergency care to veterans with OTH discharges. After the VA announced that they would provide emergency health care for a short period of time – just 90 days – to former service members with OTH discharges, Murphy called out the arbitrary limitations and called for passage of his Honor Our Commitment Act to provide permanent long-term care.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 62 percent of the veterans separated for misconduct from 2011 through 2015 were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), or another condition at least two years before their discharge. Of those with a diagnosis, about 23 percent received OTH discharges, making them largely ineligible for long-term care. More than 500,000 veterans have received an OTH discharge since World War II.
The Honor Our Commitment Act creates two new categories of VA eligibility for mental and behavioral health care for veterans with OTH or ‘bad paper’ discharges. The first category covers OTH discharged veterans, including reservists and national guard members, who deployed to a combat zone, zone of hostilities, or operated a drone in a combat zone. The second category covers OTH discharged veterans that were victims of sexual abuse, sexual battery, or sexual assault. The bill also allows veterans to receive care outside of VA facilities if it is clinically advisable or if the veteran lives far from a VA facility.