Bill would require the VA to provide mental health services to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges

WASHINGTON —U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, released a statement on Thursday after his Honor Our Commitment Act passed through the Committee as part of the FY2018 Military Construction, Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill. Murphy’s Honor Our Commitment Act would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide mental health and behavioral health services to former combat veterans who received other-than-honorable (OTH) or Bad Paper discharges. Up until recently, the VA denied it had the legal authority to provide any care to these veterans.

“We’re now another step closer to getting this bill signed into law,” said Murphy. “The men and women who risk their lives for our country and suffer the wounds of war should never be shut out of the VA system and denied the care they need. This bill does right by our veterans – it’s the least we can do for them. I won’t stop fighting until every single veteran gets the mental health care they need.”

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. 

Yesterday, Murphy co-hosted a Facebook Live event with Rep. Beto O’Rourke (TX-16), author of the House version, and a U.S. Army veteran and founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy, Kristofer Goldsmith, who was diagnosed with PTSD and discharged from the Army after surviving a suicide attempt to highlight the importance of the Honor Our Commitment Act. 

"We're incredibly happy to see that the committee recognizes that waiting until a veteran is in a state of crisis to provide mental health assistance is simply not enough," said Kristofer Goldsmith, founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy. "No veteran should have to wait until they're suicidal to get help, and we hope that congress will continue to provide absolute support to every veteran with an unfair administrative discharge." 

As co-author of the recently passed Mental Health Reform Act, 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 a year, Murphy has made the case to the VA that they could already 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 less than honorable discharges, and successfully convinced the Army to commit to reforming its policies. Last month, he called for passage of the bill after the VA announced that they will provide emergency health care for a short period of time – just 90 days – to former service members with OTH discharges. Murphy has argued that the VA still places unnecessary and arbitrary limitations on the length of care they provide to these individuals and has requested that the VA remove these limitations.