VA weighs changes to benefits eligibility for veterans with bad-paper discharges

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Just days after lawmakers on Capitol Hill heard about the deadly struggles veterans with bad-paper discharges face, and how thousands are denied benefits annually, the Department of Veterans Affairs is floating a change to its policies.

On July 10, VA published a proposal to "update and clarify regulatory bars to benefits based on character of discharge" in the Federal Register. 

The policy amendment would change how VA decides whether or not a veteran with an other-than-honorable discharge qualifies for benefits including the GI Bill, health care and home loans. 

'Deadly serious': Bad paper discharges keep veterans from critical benefits, advocates tell Congress

Specifically, VA proposed modifying its framework for discharges considered "dishonorable" for VA benefit purposes, including discharges due to: "willful and persistent misconduct," "an offense involving moral turpitude," and "homosexual acts involving aggravating circumstances or other factors affecting the performance of duty." 

VA also proposed extending an exception for "compelling circumstances" to "ensure fair character of discharge" decisions. 

Those who want to weigh in on VA's proposal can do so online at www.Regulations.gov, by mail, hand delivery or fax. Instructions on how to submit comments can be found here

Advocates like Army veteran Kris Goldsmith told Congress July 8 that VA and America had failed to help veterans with bad-paper discharges, leading to fatal consequences in some cases.

Goldsmith told Connecting Vets Friday it was "disappointing that after five years, we waited for this.

"I'm glad they're making an effort, but it took far too long to get a document that really looks like VA is just trying to save itself money ... It's continuing advancing and protecting the only process in American government that completely lacks any due process at all." 

Goldsmith, who has been advocating for major changes to VA's policies for years while he simultaneously worked to get his own discharge upgraded, said he hopes the department will go back to the drawing board.

"I really hope that, frankly, they'll completely discard their proposal and sit down with lawyers like the ones I testified with and come up with something that puts justice first and the health of vets first, not saving money." 

More than half a million veterans are living with other-than-honorable discharges, according to VA, most of them denied some or all major benefits such as the GI Bill, VA health care and others. About a quarter of all veterans receive a bad-paper discharge, according to Maureen Seidor, legal director of Swords to Plowshares.