A new federal law will allow hundreds of Connecticut veterans with “bad paper” discharges to be eligible for long-term mental health care for the first time, and thus reduce their suicide risk.
U.S. Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Conn., a co-sponsor of the law, said it will “change the lives of veterans.” The legislation was included in the federal budget signed last Friday by President Trump.
The new law affects veterans with an “other than honorable (OTH)” discharge, a status increasingly given for minor offenses. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs usually denies benefits to veterans with OTH discharges, even though Congress stipulated in 1944 that only severe conduct that would lead to court martial and dishonorable discharges should disqualify veterans from basic VA care. Many veterans have maintained that their minor offenses were triggered by service-related mental health issues like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
Under the new law, veterans with OTH discharges who either served in combat areas, were victims of military sexual trauma, or operated drones are eligible for VA mental health and behavioral health care. The law also requires the Armed Forces to give mental health screenings to all military members with an OTH status.
The suicide risk for veterans is 22 percent higher than of civilians, the VA reports. A VA study of veteran suicides in 2014 estimated that 49 Connecticut veterans committed suicide that year. Veterans who receive VA health care are less likely to kill themselves, according to the VA.
Murphy said the law will have an extensive reach nationally. “What we know is that there are tens of thousands of veterans who have bad paper discharges, who have been made ineligible for mental health services even though they have PTSD,” he said. “We have an epidemic of veterans’ suicide, and there is a much higher rate of suicide among veterans with PTSD and bad paper discharges.”
Margaret Middleton, executive director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, praised the law. “We expect it to benefit our clients immediately,” she said.
The center provides free legal services to mostly indigent veterans with mental health issues. “We have had hundreds of people with bad paper discharges come to us seeking help, usually because they want to access VA healthcare,” she said, adding that the appeal process is “incredibly onerous and not something we’re always able to win.”
Middleton said the new law will enable these veterans to obtain VA mental health care “without the help of a lawyer, which is how it should be.”
She cited a client who received emergency mental health care at the VA after a suicide attempt. Because he had an OTH discharge, the VA sent him a bill for tens of thousands of dollars, she said. “Imagine you have a catastrophic mental health crisis, the VA sends you a massive bill and you can’t continue to get care,” she said. This veteran is “exactly the kind of person who would have benefitted from” the new law. With her organization’s help, his fees were waived.
Other Connecticut veterans’ advocates praised the legislation, and called for additional benefits to help “bad paper” veterans lead productive lives.
Stephen Kennedy of Fairfield, president of the Connecticut branch of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA-CT), said the law is “a great step forward,” but added that other help, such as education benefits and housing assistance, can allow these veterans “to really complete their transition” to civilian life.
Meghan Brooks, of the Yale Law School Veterans Legal Services Clinic, agreed, saying “people with OTH discharges are still unable to access a wide variety of VA benefits.”
IAVA-CT is urging approval of a bill in the state legislature that would give state veterans’ benefits to those with OTH discharges who have PTSD, TBI, or were victims of military sexual trauma. Such benefits include: services at the Connecticut Veterans Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill such as substance abuse treatment, transitional housing and long-term care; tuition waivers at state colleges; burial assistance; and property tax exemptions. The measure has passed the Veterans Affairs Committee and needs approval from the Senate and House.
Jonathan Cohen, of the Yale Law clinic, expressed hope that the new federal law will reduce the stigma surrounding veterans with bad paper discharges, who he said “are often not regarded as true veterans.” He said if the law enables them to be “taken seriously as a population, it will likely have positive mental health effects on these veterans.”
VA Secretary David Shulkin has initiated a policy that provides emergency mental health care for veterans with OTH for 90 days, a time limit Murphy has called “arbitrary.”