A Good Policy for Bad Paper: Veterans to Receive Mental Health Benefits from the VA

Updated: March 14, 2017


By Paul J. O’Leary

According to David Shulkin, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, the VA will begin offering mental health services for veterans who left the military with other-than-honorable discharges. The issue, according to Shulkin, is critical enough that the VA is implementing the new policy without waiting for approval from Congress, citing the organization’s authority to do so.

Under current rules, veterans with less-than-honorable discharges are not eligible for many health and educational benefits.

These changes come on the heels of legislation introduced last month by U.S. Representatives Mike Coffman of Colorado and Derek Kilmer of Washington that would allow the VA to widen the scope of mental health services offered to Veterans, particularly emergency services for those in crisis – including those with bad conduct discharges.

Shulkin, 57, is a physician who served as Undersecretary of Health for the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs from 2015 to 2017, was confirmed unanimously as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs last month. He has committed to bring sweeping changes to the troubled organization.

This is an important step in improving the lives of our veterans, even the most troubled among us. No one can argue that the military, like any other organization, has its own share of bad players. Some came to the organization that way and others went down the wrong path after a period of time.

There are a million reasons why someone engages in behavior that is not acceptable to the military lifestyle – unacceptable enough to receive a bad conduct discharge. Many are the same reasons these things occur among the civilian population: bad character, mental illness, emotional distress, or poor decision making. In the military, however, there is the added stress of combat, deployments, and an operational lifestyle that can make even the most balanced and well-grounded person go off the rails. somedrag-2

More importantly, however, military members and veterans volunteered to enter this world and serve the interests of America. Whether their reasons were patriotic or pragmatic, they did so knowing they were assuming a tremendous risk to their bodies and their minds. War is hard and it leaves few unscathed.

There is probably no realistic way to determine if a veteran’s mental health issues were service-related or would have occurred regardless. Either way, there is a good chance the issues that led to them receiving the bad conduct discharges will likely follow them into their post-military lives, where a cycle of alcohol and drug addiction, behavioral issues, violence, and suicide are a greater risk.

Will this plan provide benefits to some of those who were simply bad people? Maybe. Who cares? If it benefits veterans who legitimately find themselves in need or in crisis, then it will be worth it.

My only concern is that I hope the VA takes steps to increase personnel and improve their customer service in all areas, including this which presumably will add more patients to their roles. Great and well-deserved health care becomes irrelevant if it cannot or will not be delivered to the patient.

Kudos to Secretary Shulkin for this action and to Representatives Coffman and Kilmer for their efforts on behalf of our community. For too long, the VA has been mired in scandal, bureaucracy, and controversy. This action is a step in the right direction.



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