Major Updates to VA Health Care Benefits for Veterans

In a significant move to provide better support for former service members, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has revised its regulations regarding the character of discharge determinations. This change means that veterans who have received a discharge other than honorable or engaged in immoral conduct, as judged by a special court-martial, will now be eligible for VA care. This update marks a substantial shift in how the VA evaluates eligibility for benefits, aiming to extend services to those who have faced significant challenges in the military.
The new regulations include a meticulous review of records for former service members with discharges other than honorable and discharges of bad conduct. This thorough process ensures that the VA can extend its services to deserving individuals who may have faced discrimination, survived sexual assault or harassment, struggled with mental or physical health issues, or encountered other hardships. One notable change involves the regulatory bar regarding “homosexual acts that involve aggravating circumstances or other factors that affect the performance of duty.” While the VA had already taken steps to ensure equitable access for those discharged based on homosexual conduct, gender identity, or HIV status, this move further solidifies the VA’s commitment to reducing disparities for these groups.

An essential aspect of the new regulations is the introduction of a “compelling circumstances exception” for certain former service members discharged for “willful and persistent misconduct” or an “offense involving moral turpitude.” This exception allows the VA to consider factors such as length and character of service, mental and cognitive impairment, physical health, combat-related hardship, and experiences of sexual abuse, assault, or discrimination. This new pathway enables the VA to provide benefits and services to deserving former service members who faced significant hardships. 

Due to these regulatory changes, former service members previously denied VA services are encouraged to reapply. This allows many to receive the support they need and deserve. Secretary Denis McDonough emphasized, “We encourage former service members with other than honorable discharges to apply for VA care and benefits today. Although the VA cannot change your discharge status, we want to provide you with any health care or benefits we can—and we will work with you every step of the way to do exactly that.” Under Secretary for Benefits, Josh Jacobs added, “Too often, former service members believe that they cannot come to VA due to their discharge status—but the truth is that many former service members who were not discharged honorably can get health care or benefits from VA. When you apply—as with all VA benefits—we will do everything possible to get you to yes.”

It is essential to note that the VA’s discharge determination does not alter the Armed Forces’ character of service or impact the former service member’s military discharge status. This determination is solely for VA benefits and services eligibility purposes. Any discharge classified as “honorable” or “general – under honorable conditions” meets the character of discharge requirement for basic eligibility for most VA benefits. Former service members with other discharges will not automatically be denied VA benefits. Exceptions include those with a “dishonorable discharge,” those discharged for desertion, mutiny, going AWOL for 180 continuous days, or espionage, those discharged by sentence of a general court-martial, or those discharged instead of trial. The VA does provide a compelling circumstances exception for AWOL when appropriate.
These updates significantly expand the scope of VA care for veterans, particularly those who were previously ineligible due to other than honorable discharges or misconduct. The changes aim to reduce disparities and ensure more equitable access to crucial healthcare services for veterans who may have faced discrimination, mental or physical health challenges, or other difficulties during their military service. By sharing this information, veterans can be informed of their updated eligibility for VA benefits and services, encouraging them to seek the support they need.
VA Health Care Benefits
The VA’s new regulation marks a significant step towards inclusivity and support for former service members facing unique challenges. If you or someone you know falls under this category, we strongly encourage you to apply for disability claim benefits today. The VA is committed to helping you access the support you need every step of the way. Please share this news with other veterans who could benefit from these updated regulations and ensure they can receive the care and support they deserve.