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Does the VA Do Enough for Veterans Without Honorable Discharges?

In late April 2024, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced permanent changes to VA benefits approval guidelines, offering veterans without honorable discharges the right to be considered for VA healthcare benefits.

Under past VA policy, the VA medical system was not open to those without Honorable discharges or those characterized as Under Honorable Conditions.

Revised VA Policy

The revised VA guidelines were published in the Federal Register as a Final Rule. As we noted then, the new rules altered VA policy “to expand its healthcare program to some former service members discharged under other than honorable conditions or by special court-martial according to the VA official site.”

But since the publication of the VA’s final rule, some have gone on record saying the VA hasn’t gone far enough to help these veterans and also that the agency needs to exercise more due diligence in spreading the word about such important policy changes.

Related: Veteran Military Benefits Guide

The VA Final Rule

Effective June 25, 2024, veterans who had other than honorable discharges and can show that extenuating circumstances, including being the victim of racism, military sexual trauma, mental illness, traumatic brain injury (TBI) or similar issues may qualify for VA healthcare benefits.

Those who applied for VA benefits and were denied in the past may be eligible to reapply for and be approved to receive certain VA benefits after their applications have been reviewed.

Department of Veterans Affairs Critics Say VA Needs to Do More

An April 30, 2024 article in Stars and Stripes notes veteran lobbyist groups and activists have taken the Department of Veterans Affairs to task over the final rule, saying that any progress is good, but the VA isn’t doing enough to inform veterans about their new options.

According to one Stripes.com interviewee, the VA “imposes a significant burden on veterans” to prove their claims regardless of their ability to qualify for benefits.

The director of one veteran-centered nonprofit organization complains about the VA and how it has handled crucial veteran benefits issues in the past.

“Given VA’s track record, for this new regulation to make any difference to service members who have long been denied their benefits, VA needs to outline specific efforts to educate their employees to ensure they properly serve any newly recognized veterans.”

That’s according to Renee Burbank of the National Veterans Legal Services Program, quoted in the Stripes article.

In another section of the same article, a veteran said that when he asked his local VA office about potential rule changes that could benefit veterans without Honorable discharges, “they know nothing about it” was the reply.

For a major rule change, that sounds like a serious lack of inter-agency communication.

Related: Veteran Military Benefits Guide

Even the VA Admits There Are Problems

Even the Department of Veterans Affairs admits there are problems, and not just with brand-new policy.

According to its official site, the VA struggles to keep up with some current programs, especially those affecting veterans who have had VA claims denied and are submitting them through the VA Board of Appeals.

Have you appealed a VA denial of your claim? Even with an honorable discharge, the VA claim appeals process can take a long time (by the VA’s admission). How long?

How Long Does the VA Take To Review A VA Claim Appeal?

If you applied for VA benefits, were denied, and submitted an appeal, the VA official site says: “The Veterans Benefits Administration usually takes 12 to 18 months to review appeals and decide whether to grant some or all of the appeal.”

Consider what the VA official site says about appeal case volume to get a better idea of why that might be:

“In recent years, the Board has resolved about 100,000 appeals each year. Despite the high number of decisions each year, there are still over 200,000 pending appeals waiting for a decision.”

The same page notes that this number is down “from nearly 475,000 appeals waiting for a decision just six years ago, which is significant considering the increasing number of Veterans who have filed an appeal at the Board in recent years.”

Does the VA Need More Staff?

The VA says part of the problem with delivering timely appeals concerns staffing issues. “We have Congress to thank for providing enough resources for the Board to hire more Veterans Law Judges (VLJ), supporting counsel, and staff to help resolve and process these appeals.”

The VA has been trying to modernize its system for some time. In addition to the 2024 Final Rule, a public law passed in 2017 mandated the upgrade of VA procedures and processes.

Even with the upgrades and improvements, the problems with VA benefits in this area persist in terms of speed and ensuring all affected veterans are notified.

The VA perspective on this, based on the information published on the official site, is that staffing issues are a major player in resolving these problems. But activists and lawmakers note these are “legacy” VA issues requiring top-down systemic change, and the availability of more resources must be coupled with an evolution of the entire VA ecosystem.

Related: Veteran Military Benefits Guide

What Next?

If you qualify to apply for an appeal to your VA claim decision, you have several options. If you submitted a claim before the rule change and it is denied going forward, you may have the same options to refile and request a review. See the VA official site for the options you have to resubmit.

If you filed an appeal for a denied VA claim and have had that appeal denied, there is another course of action. VA.gov instructs veterans in these circumstances to file another appeal to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims within 120 days of the Board’s decision.


About the author

Editor-in-Chief | + posts

Editor-in-Chief Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.