On February 7, 2017, bipartisan members of the House of Representatives introduced the Veteran Urgent Access to Mental Healthcare Act to Congress. The current veterans’ bill under U.S. Code Title 38 only provides health care access to combat veterans who were discharged with an honorable status. The proposed bill purports to extend access to urgent mental health care services to combat veterans discharged from the military with a status that would have otherwise made them ineligible for them.
However, the bill is not without reservations. It still excludes veterans who did not deploy in combat or received a “dishonorable” or “bad conduct” discharge. However, it does extend access to noncombat veterans who were victims of sexual assault and battery and sexual harassment. In addition, the bill proposes access to health care services and to facilities outside of the Department of Defense (DOD) healthcare network in cases where the DOD mental health care professional advises or where service would not be economically feasible because of geographical inaccessibility. Still, pressing issues with regards to the number of available mental health providers and funding remain.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), an average number of 20 veterans per day commit suicide. With the Veterans Urgent Access to Mental Healthcare Act, its sponsors are hoping to decrease the number of veteran suicides each year. If passed, the Act would require an independent report based on a study comparing the rate and methods of suicide among combat and noncombat veterans, and between those who have received mental heath care services from the Veterans Health Administration and those who have not.
Besides the significant number of suicides, the bill aims to address the controversies surrounding discharges that are “other than honorable.” Representative Mike Coffman, the bill’s principal sponsor and a combat veteran himself, questions “the nature of the discharges in the first place, and [is] exploring that” issue. In 2015, the National Public Radio reported from its study that about 22,000 Army veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI) were discharged as less than honorable. As a combat veteran from two branches of the military, Representative Coffman believes that the stigma surrounding personality disorders has led to inappropriate disciplinary measures and consequently delayed access proper health care.
Last year, Representative Coffman proposed a similar bill. However, it did not pass the House. The previous bill purported to expand mental health care access to combat veterans that received dishonorable charges or bad conduct discharges; it did not gain much favor then. Now, with fourteen cosponsors, and the current VA Secretary David Shulkin’s assurance that there will be “greater accountability…improved access, responsiveness and expanded care options,” it is curious to see whether the bill will in fact help serve those who have served.