WASHINGTON -- Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said his department will start offering mental health services for veterans with other-than-honorable dismissals as soon as possible, saying the issue is too important to wait for congressional intervention.
"We have some authorities to do that," he told members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Tuesday night. "So many veterans are just disconnected from our system. The 20 a day committing suicide are not getting the care they need.
"We're going to do whatever we can. We're going to work with you. This is unacceptable, and we shouldn't have to wait for Congress to force the issue."
Veterans advocates for years have pushed for that type of care for the estimated 300,000 veterans who have been separated from the military with so-called "bad paper" discharges, making them ineligible for a range of VA health and education benefits.
They argue that a significant portion of those cases are troops dismissed for erratic behavior or substance abuse, problems that are often symptoms of more serious, undiagnosed mental health issues. Denying those former troops access to mental health care dramatically increases their chances of suicide, they say.
After the hearing, Shulkin said he hopes to have the new offerings available within a few months, with instructions for individual hospitals on outreach and urgent care treatment options for those veterans. He also credited Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman with "changing my mind" on the issue.
Last month, Coffman introduced legislation requiring the VA to offer mental health care to veterans with other-than-honorable discharges, calling it an urgent public health need. Coffman praised the news, said it caught him by surprise.
Shulkin’s announcement was met with a loud round of applause from the lawmakers and veterans advocates at the Tuesday evening hearing.
Kris Goldsmith, founder of High Ground Veterans Advocacy, has pushed the issue in recent years and called Tuesday’s announcement a critical step forward for thousands of veterans. He attempted suicide in 2007 while in the Army, but was given a general discharge instead of treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
"To hear that the VA is finally going to abide by the 1944 GI Bill of Rights is fantastic," said Goldsmith, who also works as assistant director for policy at Vietnam Veterans of America. "Since I ‘came out’ with my bad-paper story ten years ago, I've had countless veterans reach out to me for help.
"I'm so glad they'll finally be able to get help where they deserve to: at the Department of Veterans Affairs." Follow @LeoShane
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.