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Congressman renews push for mental health care for veterans with bad discharges

By TOM ROEDER | The Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 9, 2017

A bill from Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman would allow combat veterans with bad discharges to get emergency mental health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The military's trend of kicking out mentally ill soldiers for minor misconduct with other-than-honorable status was documented in a 2013 Gazette investigation that earned a Pulitzer prize. Those discharges generally bar veterans from veterans' benefits including VA health care.

Coffman said his measure would guarantee those troops emergency mental health treatment regardless of their discharge status.

"It's so important to help these combat veterans out who, in my mind, have been unfairly treated and left with no access to health care," Coffman said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C., office.

The measure, H.R. 918, is meant to address veteran suicides. The VA estimated last year that 20 veterans kill themselves daily.

Coffman said that since 2009, an estimated 22,000 Army veterans suffering from mental illness or brain injury have been discharged for misconduct.

The VA measure would be a quick solution to part of that problem, Coffman said.

"This one is fairly automatic," he said.

Coffman said he's also working on another bill that could help veterans suffering from brain injuries or mental illness who got other-than-honorable discharges.

As chairman of the personnel subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Coffman said he'll push a measure that would require the Pentagon to review those discharges, and upgrade them if the misconduct was tied to war-caused mental and brain injuries.

Coffman has struggled to get approval of similar measures in the past, but said he's optimistic this term due to Republican control of the House, Senate and White House.

"The situation is much improved," he said.

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©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) speaks in Denver, Colorado on Jul 9, 2011.
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