WASHINGTON — Veterans with other-than-honorable discharges will be able to access Veterans Affairs emergency rooms for urgent mental health care starting July 5, under new rules outlined by department leaders on Tuesday.
The move is the culmination of months of review into how to handle the cases of vets who may have been improperly separated from the military due to undiagnosed or untreated problems like post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or other mental health issues.
In March, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin pledged to find more ways to help those veterans, even if their status makes them ineligible for traditional veterans benefits. The new initiative mandates that veterans with other-than-honorable paperwork may receive care for "a mental health emergency" for up to 90 days.
That may include inpatient services, residential care or outpatient options.
"Suicide prevention is my top clinical priority," Shulkin said in a statement. "We want these former service members to know there is someplace they can turn if they are facing a mental health emergency, whether it means urgent care at a VA emergency department, a Vet Center or through the Veterans Crisis Line."
The announcement came on National PTSD Awareness Day.
Veterans advocates for years have pushed for some type of mental health care for the estimated 300,000 veterans who have been separated from the military with so-called "bad paper" discharges, arguing that many are reputable veterans whose underlying conditions forced them out of the service.
VA studies estimate that nationwide about 20 veterans a day commit suicide. Of those, the majority are not regular users of VA services.
In a statement, officials from Vietnam Veterans of America praised the announcement.
"Secretary Shulkin leads with the heart of a physician, and takes seriously his oath to ‘do no harm,’" said John Rowan, national president of VVA. "That’s why he’s working to correct the VA’s self-imposed policies, which have denied care to our most vulnerable veterans for decades."
VA officials said during veterans’ 90-day emergency treatment, Veterans Health Administration officials and Veterans Benefits Administration staffers will work "to determine if the mental health condition is a result of a service-related injury, making the service member eligible for ongoing coverage for that condition."
The Veterans Crisis Line is also open to all veterans in need of immediate mental health assistance. To access the program, call 800-273-8255 and press 1, text 838255, or visit https://www.veteranscrisisline.net.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.