By Jonathan Kaupanger
Beginning July 5, veterans with other-than-honorable (OTH) administrative discharge can apply and receive emergency mental health care at all Veterans Health Administration (VHA) medical centers. This is the first time a U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary has started an initiative focused on OTH service members who are in mental health distress.
An OTH discharge is the most severe type of military administrative discharge. Some examples of actions that could lead to an OTH includes security violations, use of violence, conviction by a civilian court with a sentence including prison time or being found guilty of adultery in a divorce hearing. In most cases, veterans who receive an OTH discharge cannot reenlist and veteran’s benefits are not usually available to those discharged through this type of action.
During the initial 90-day period, which can include inpatient, residential or outpatient care, VHA and the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) will work together to determine if the mental health condition is a result of a service-related injury, making the veteran eligible for ongoing coverage for that condition.
There are about 500,000 veterans with OTH discharges. As part of this new initiative, they can now seek treatment at VA emergency departments, Vet Centers or contact the Veterans Crisis Line. Vet Centers offer individual and whole-family services for PTSD, military sexual trauma, depression, readjustment and substance use disorders.
“Our goal is simple: to save lives,” said VA Secretary David J. Shulkin. “Veterans who are in crisis should receive help immediately. Far too many veterans have fallen victim to suicide, roughly 20 every day. Far too many families are left behind asking themselves what more could have been done. The time for action is now.”
Mental health appointments in the VA have been difficult to get in the past due to overcrowding. Studies show that up to 20 percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. While in metropolitan areas there may be a good supply of mental health professionals, in rural areas it’s different.
“One of the ways VA has begun to tackle this is by using technology – TeleMental health,” Shulkin said. “Last year we did over 336,000 TeleMental health visits, nobody is doing this type of mental health provision at the scope or scale that VA is.”
Shulkin explained that the VA has established five TeleMental health hubs in areas of the country where there is a good supply of psychologists and psychiatrist so they can provide care to areas where it doesn’t exist.
The VA does have a shortage of mental health providers, but that’s on par with the rest of the country. It’s estimated that only about 44 percent of American’s mental health needs are being addressed. To meet those needs, there should be one psychiatrist to every 30,000 Americans. In some areas, where the need is higher, there should be a 20,000 to 1 ratio. That means an additional 3,397 psychiatrists are needed in our country alone.
But VA is helping with this as well by trying to hire about 1,000 more mental health specialists.
“We’re expanding our residency programs to train more mental health professionals,” Shulkin said. “Not only do we hope that many of them will stay in VA, but also because we see this as part of our role in helping the country to fill its shortage of mental health professionals, so this is very important to us.”