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VA Expands Healthcare Program To Some Without Honorable Discharges

The Department of Veterans Affairs has changed its guidelines for offering VA benefits to those with military discharges that are not characterized as honorable.

The new regulations were published in the last full week of April 2024, changing VA guidelines 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.

Military Discharges and VA Benefits

The VA official site notes that typically, … to receive VA benefits and services, the Veteran’s character of discharge or service must be under other than dishonorable conditions” which can mean:

  • Honorable
  • Under honorable conditions
  • General discharge

The VA claims to “carefully review” the records of those who apply for VA benefits without one of the discharge characterizations listed above to see if these applicants qualify for VA benefits.

The VA claim here is that the review “helps ensure that VA can provide services to deserving former service members – including certain individuals who faced discrimination, survived sexual assault or harassment, struggled with their mental or physical health, or faced other challenges while serving in the military.”

Related: Disabled Veteran Benefits Guide

Who Generally Qualifies for VA Benefits

The VA official site says any military discharge within the honorable category (see the list above) typically meets the basic standard for VA benefits including healthcare.

However, the VA advises, “Former service members who did not receive those discharges are not automatically disqualified from receiving VA care or benefits.”

VA claims to typically deny VA benefits to those with punitive discharges such as:

  • Dishonorable discharge
  • Circumstances where service members were discharged for desertion, mutiny, going AWOL for 180 continuous days, or espionage
  • Those discharged by sentence of a general court martial, 
  • Those discharged in lieu of trial
  • Those discharged as a “resignation by an officer for the good of the service”
  • Those discharged as a conscientious objector

The Revised VA Policy on Military Discharges

The VA’s final rule on military discharges and access to VA benefits was modified in April 2024 to include eliminating a “regulatory bar” or prohibition for those discharged for “homosexual conduct” or issues related to gender identity, HIV status, or other related factors.

  • Another modification is the creation of an exception to VA policy for “compelling circumstances.” 
  • The VA will consider giving benefits to those without an honorable discharge for issues related to so-called “moral turpitude,” 
  • The VA official site says the agency will “now consider and determine if a compelling circumstances exception will permit VA to nonetheless provide care and services” in spite of the servicemember’s lack of an Honorable, General, or Under Honorable Conditions discharge.

The exception allows the VA to consider the nature of the applicant’s military service, and whether or not the applicant experienced combat, sexual assault, or discrimination. Doing so, “creates a new path for VA to provide benefits and services to deserving former service members.”

If You Were Previously Determined Ineligible for VA Benefits Due To Your Military Discharge

The VA final rule allows service members who previously applied for VA benefits to do so again, even if they were denied on the basis of their military discharge. If this applies to you, the Department of Veterans Affairs encourages you to apply for benefits again under the revised guidelines.

“VA encourages former service members with other than honorable discharges and bad conduct discharges (adjudged at special court-martial) to apply for VA care and benefits today.” 

It should be noted that this is in reference to a new application for VA benefits, it is not an application to update the character of your military discharge. That’s a separate process veterans must initiate with their branch of service.

The VA press release about the revised policy includes a quote from VA Secretary Denis McDonough, who says, “Although 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.”

Some may be confused by the VA Secretary’s statement on the VA’s ability to change a military discharge, since the VA official site contains step-by-step instructions on getting started on upgrading a military discharge. The VA does provide assistance to get started but it’s up to the Defense Department to decide on whether or not a discharge gets upgraded, not the Department of Veterans Affairs.

What To Know

VA claims it has “conducted extensive outreach to service members with other than honorable and bad conduct discharges adjudged at special court-martial in recent years.” 

If you have not been contacted by the Department of Veterans Affairs and need to know more about the option to get VA care without an Honorable discharge, contact the VA directly online or by phone at 1-800-827-1000.

Related: Military Benefits Guide for Veterans and Retirees

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.