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Murphy questions whether VA informed 500,000 vets of their eligibility for benefits

October 3, 2018

More than 500,000 veterans now are eligible for mental and behavioral health care at the Department of Veterans Affairs, but U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., is questioning whether the VA has informed them of their eligibility.

“I have received no information regarding any efforts by the VA to notify the more than 500,000 veterans who are now eligible for care,” Murphy said in a letter sent Tuesday to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

Murphy’s proposal to require the VA to provide mental and behavioral health care to former service members with at least 100 days of active duty service, who served in combat and were discharged “under conditions other than honorable,” was included as part of the massive federal spending package signed into law by President Donald Trump in late March. His proposal also applies to vets with other than honorable discharges who were sexually assaulted.

The proposal affects between 800 and 1,000 Connecticut veterans, according to an estimate from Yale University’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic.

The VA was required to inform eligible veterans no later than 180 days after the law’s enactment, which was Sept. 18, but has yet to confirm it notified veterans before that deadline, according to Murphy.

“I am extremely troubled that it appears the VA has failed to follow the law and properly inform newly eligible veterans of the care available to them,” he said to Wilkie.

A request for comment sent to the VA last Friday had not been returned by Wednesday. A VA spokeswoman said by email Tuesday evening that the department was working on the request.

The U.S. military discharges more than 20,000 service members annually with one of five discharge statuses ranging from honorable to dishonorable. An other-than-honorable, commonly referred to as “bad paper,” discharge is classified as an administrative discharge and makes those veterans ineligible for health and other benefits available to veterans with honorable discharges.

Many of these bad paper veterans have argued that they were separated for behavior related to undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues as a result of their military service. Connecticut became the first state to offer benefits to this group of vets. That law became effective at the start of this week.

A 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office found that nearly two-thirds of the 92,000 service members discharged for misconduct between 2011 and 2015, were diagnosed with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury “or certain other conditions that could be associated with misconduct” at least two years before being discharged. Of those, 23 percent received an other-than-honorable discharge.

Murphy said the VA similarly failed to notify these veterans in 2017 that it expanded its emergency medical care policies to allow them to receive 90 days of mental health care.

“The VA must not make the same mistake twice,” Murphy said, noting that only 115 veterans took advantage of the program because the VA “failed to properly notify, advertise, or inform” them of their eligibility.

That’s what spurred Murphy’s decision to include the provision in the 2018 law requiring VA notification.

“I am gravely concerned that the department’s apparent failure to notify them in accordance with the law puts them at increased risk for mental and behavioral health problems,” he said to Wilkie.

j.bergman@theday.com

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