Skip to content

Blumenthal & Underwood Introduce Legislation to Address VA's Systemic Unlawful Denials of Care to Veterans With Other-Than-Honorable Administrative Discharges

[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and U.S. Representative Lauren Underwood (D-IL) introduced the Unlawful Turn-aways Act to address the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) systemic denials of health care and services to veterans with general or other-than-honorable (OTH) administrative discharges. A 2020 study by the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School found that the VA has been improperly denying care to veterans with OTH discharges for four decades and that as many as 400,000 more veterans are at risk of never receiving VA care under current VA policies.

“This bill would give veterans with ‘bad paper’ discharges the ability to qualify for VA benefits—an opportunity the VA has wrongly denied them for decades,” said Blumenthal, member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “Too many veterans who have selflessly sacrificed for our country received other-than-honorable discharges – because they were suffering from PTSD or because they were gay – and then were wrongfully denied when they turned to the VA for help in an intolerable injustice. I’m proud to work with Representative Underwood to right this wrong, build institutional benefits knowledge at the VA, and ensure our veterans are able to receive the critical care and benefits they deserve.”

“For far too long, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has erroneously turned away veterans for ‘bad paper,’ preventing people who have served our country from even applying for VA health care services,” said Underwood, member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “In some cases, veterans could be denied care based on no reason other than their sexual orientation or gender identity. I am proud to join Senator Blumenthal and Representative Pappas to introduce the Unlawful Turn-aways Act of 2021 so that we can begin to right these unacceptable wrongs and ensure that veterans can access the care and benefits they need and deserve.”

Former servicemembers suffering from trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries, are frequently and unfairly discharged or given an OTH discharge for minor misconduct. Many LGBT veterans were expelled with OTH discharges until the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was repealed in 2011. These discharges make it more difficult for veterans in need to access important benefits, including mental health services. 

The VA has an obligation to accept and consider benefit applications from all veterans, including those with OTH discharges. The agency is required by law to look for mitigating or extenuating circumstances that may be able to grant these veterans benefits, provide a written decision, as well as give veterans information on how to appeal the decision in the event their application is denied. However, the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School study found that the VA has been improperly denying care to veterans with OTH discharges since 1980, often as a result of improper staff training, turning away thousands of veterans who may have qualified for benefits and leaving hundreds of thousands more at risk of being denied.

The Unlawful Turn-aways Act would improve training, guidance, and oversight for VA staff to eliminate cases of unlawful turn-aways of veterans who may be eligible for benefits. The legislation would take steps to remedy past unlawful turn-aways of veterans, including requiring the VA to notify all veterans with general and OTH discharges about their right to apply for VA health care and encourage them to do so even if they have previously been denied. The legislation would simplify VA’s eligibility standards and processes to make it easier for veterans to receive benefits by specifically removing the discharge status-requirement for Military Sexual Trauma survivors to receive counseling and expands eligibility for emergency health care to allow more veterans to access mental health readjustment counseling. This bill would also mandate outreach to veterans given OTH discharges for no other reason than their sexual orientation or gender identity, along with a study of the treatment of these veterans.

This legislation is co-sponsored by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and U.S. Representative Chris Pappas (D-NH).

The Unlawful Turn-aways Act has been endorsed by the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, Connecticut Veterans Legal Center, Minority Veterans of America, American Legion, Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), and Protect Our Defenders. 

“For decades, thousands of veterans who sought care at the VA were wrongfully turned away,” said Dana Montalto, Clinical Instructor at Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic. “Over 400,000 veterans remain at risk of being denied treatment, despite being in the middle of the largest public health crisis in a century. By mandating improved training, requiring sustained outreach, and streamlining eligibility criteria, this bill will ensure that VA focuses on inclusion rather than exclusion, fulfilling its sacred obligation to care for each and every veteran wounded in service.”

“Too often, we see veterans turned away from VA services - particularly veterans with mental health conditions and experiences of military sexual trauma,” Liam Brennan, Executive Director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center. “As a nation, we cannot say that we support our veterans when we continue to turn them away, knowing that veterans without access to the VA are more likely to die by suicide and to experience homelessness and unemployment. This bill is a much-needed effort to ensure that all of our veterans have access to the care that they need.”

The text of the Senate version of the bill is available here. The House introduced a similar version of the legislation.