Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin announced plans to expand urgent mental healthcare treatment for former service members with other-than-honorable discharges last week. Currently, service members with other-than-honorable discharges are not eligible for any VA healthcare benefits. These new plans would mean around half a million former service members would be able to get care from the VA during mental health crises.
There are around 482,000 veterans in Missouri, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In Columbia, veterans can access care through the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital and non-profits that provide employment, housing and mental health resources.
Stephen Gaither is the public affairs officer for the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital. He said the hospital has a policy not to turn away service members experiencing a mental health crisis. He said the care service members can receive could include hospitalization or a referral to outpatient services.
“The unfortunate thing is, if someone is not eligible, then they end up with a bill,” said Gaither. “But we’re providing it under a humanitarian service aspect.”
Gaither said he’s not sure how many service members in Missouri have an other-than-honorable discharge, but the hospital already had this approach in place before the announcement.
Non-profits like Welcome Home, a Columbia-based community organization that serves veterans experiencing homelessness, provide mental health resources in addition to the VA.
Scott Buis, clinical director for Welcome Home, said Shulkin’s plans are a positive development for service members.
“The veterans that might have gotten a dishonorable discharge might feel that they have nowhere to turn to,” said Buis. “The secretary has opened the door to say the Veterans Administration is here for you, regardless of your discharge status.”
Buis said Welcome Home serves around 120 veterans a year between the organization’s shelter and supportive services program. He said the organization never turns anyone away, but these plans would make it easier overall for service members to receive necessary care.
This is the first time a VA secretary has proposed an initiative focused on former other-than-honorably discharged service members and mental health crises. Shulkin aims to finalize the plans by this summer.