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VA opens mental health services to veterans with 'other than honorable' status

Sarah Levis, behavioral health operations manager at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.
Karen Shakerdge/WXXI
Sarah Levis, behavioral health operations manager at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.

For the first time, veterans with an other than honorable discharge can access mental health services at VA centers. Veterans with this kind of status served in the military but have not been eligible for benefits until now.

"Prior to this, anyone who had an other than honorable discharge was not able to receive any VA medical care, period. This has really opened up the possibility of being served for a time of up to 90 days,” says Sarah Levis, behavioral health operations manager at the Canandaigua VA Medical Center.

report released in May called into question how accurate or fair the discharge process is, especially for people who have served and develop mental or physical health conditions.

The policy change, which rolled out nationally on July 5, does not grant access to medical care, unless it is a medical issue attributable to their mental health, Levis explains. In that case, the veteran would be billed under humanitarian eligibility.

When asked whether it could possibly “open up a can of worms” that some veterans can access temporary mental health but not medical services, Levis replied no. She said a veteran with an other than honorable discharge status coming in for mental health services is the first step toward the ultimate goal — changing their discharge status to receive a wider range of benefits.

“This is a multipronged approach – coming in for emergency mental health care, we’ll take care of you, we’ll wrap our services around you. But in the meantime, we’re also going to ask for the Department of Defense, Veterans Benefits Administration and our local friends to be able to get your discharge status changed so that it can open the door wider to other services,” Levis says.

The reaction to this change among the overall veteran population, Levis says, has been “mixed.”

"There are some folks in the veteran population who feel that they served — they have an honorable discharge, they worked very hard for that — and feel that those who have other than honorable should not necessarily be given those same rights," says Levis.

It’s too soon to know if the mental health initiative will actually act as a pathway to changing discharge status, Levis adds. 

Karen Shakerdge covers health for WXXI News. She has spent the past decade asking people questions about their lives, as a documentary film producer, oral historian and now radio reporter.