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The push to restore health benefits to thousands of veterans

Bob McDonald, new Secretary of the US Dept of Veterans Affairs, has vowed to end veterans homelessness, and walked Skid Row for the homeless census Thursday night to drive the point home.
John Rabe
Bob McDonald, Secretary of the US Dept of Veterans Affairs, has received a petition asking him to change a rule that would allow tens of thousands of vets -- who'd been separated for minor misconduct -- to get medical care. Currently, most vets with less than Honorable Discharges are generally denied VA health care.

In what would be the biggest change in veterans benefits since the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill, a vets group is petitioning the Department of Veterans Affairs to offer health care to vets kicked out for minor misconduct.

The San Francisco-based non-profit group Swords to Plowshares, along with the the National Veterans Legal Services Program, and the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School, is launching a public campaign behind the effort Wednesday. A private effort has been underway for months, after the group sent a petition to V.A. Secretary Bob McDonald in December 2015.

At issue are the hundreds of thousands of veterans who've left the services with less-than-honorable discharges over the past few decades and have little or no access to health and mental health services provided by the V.A. 

"We should be cutting [vets] off from support services very reluctantly, and very rarely. And we’re not doing that," said Swords to Plowshares Attorney Brad Adams, a former Army intelligence officer and Afghanistan veteran. 

Adams said veteran health care should be like workman's compensation—people who are injured while on the job should have their care covered. But the system today usually denies health care to any veteran with a less-than-Honorable Discharge.

And such discharges are far from rare: data obtained by  KPCC found more than 615,000 vets were kicked out with less-than-Honorable Discharges over the past 25 years. 

This proposed change would connect most of those vets with medical care immediately. For those who committed more serious offenses, the proposal calls for the V.A. to review mitigating factors like combat service and post-traumatic stress when determining eligibility for benefits. 

In a statement, a V.A. official said they’re reviewing the proposal and have met with the group. 

Currently, all vets with a less-than-Honorable Discharge are subject to an "individual review" of their file by a V.A. employee who determines whether, in their opinion, the vet deserves care. For those kicked out for misconduct, the standard applied by the V.A. is whether the vet knew the difference between right and wrong at the time of the incident.

Adams said the V.A. should consider whether post-traumatic stress factored into the misconduct, and if so, that the vet be granted medical care.

The group isn't asking the V.A. to touch any benefits besides health and mental health care. The Post G.I. Bill, for example, Adams said,  should continue to function as "a reward" for those with Honorable Discharges.