VLS pursues opportunities to influence policy-making at local, state, and federal levels, with an emphasis on issues that disproportionately impact historically underrepresented veteran populations.
VA’s Denial of Healthcare for those with Less-than-Honorable Discharges and VLS's Response
For years, VLS and colleagues had heard from veterans with less than fully honorable discharges that they were being turned away when they sought to apply for urgently needed healthcare at Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) facilities. This left more than 400,000 veterans across the country at risk of being unlawfully turned away from treatment for service-related mental health conditions and other disabilities without due process.
After so many individual reports of veterans being improperly denied the opportunity to apply for VA benefits and services, VLS launched an investigation in collaboration with the Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School and OUTVETS, a Boston-based LGBTQ+ veterans service organization. We collected reports from advocates across the country and requested and compiled years of data from the Department of Defense and the VA. In February 2020 we co-authored a report, Turned Away: How VA Unlawfully Denies Health Care to Veterans with Bad Paper. The report highlighted the stories of individual veterans and several findings, including:
For decades, in cities across the country, VA has been turning away veterans with less than honorable or “bad paper” discharges when they seek treatment or attempt to enroll in health care, including LGBTQ+ veterans discharged under discriminatory policies such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
VA enrollment manuals, handbooks, and trainings often provided incorrect information about VA’s eligibility rules for veterans with bad paper.
Certain groups of veterans—including those with service-related mental health conditions—are more likely to be turned away by VA. Veterans who served in the Navy or Marine Corps, who were enlisted, who served in the Post-9/11 Era, or who have a mental health condition such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, are more likely to be turned away.
Veterans with less than honorable discharges are some of the most in need of supportive services, with higher rates of mental health conditions and homelessness. Studies show that veterans with bad paper are at three times the risk of suicide. However, even with bad paper, veterans who had recently accessed mental health care at VA were at no greater risk of suicide than other veterans.
The report caught the attention of leadership at the VA when it was covered in the Washington Post. VA leadership approached VLS, and other legal organizations devoted to serving veterans across the country, inviting us to a summit to gather feedback on how the VA could be more inclusive and responsive to the needs of all veterans. In May 2023, VA issued a revised Eligibility Determinations Manual and revised several sections of its M21-1 Adjudication Procedures Manual, with significant improvements aligned with the report’s recommendations. VLS is optimistic this will meaningfully change how veterans with less than honorable discharges are treated when they seek VA benefits and services, and we will continue monitoring the experience of individual veterans seeking care and advocating on their behalf.
Holyoke Soliders' Home Tragedy and VLS Response
In 2020, 76 veterans died of COVID at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home due to longstanding issues at the Home and the decision of the Home’s leadership to require its nursing staff, over their objections, to combine healthy and sick veterans onto one crowded unit. The Massachusetts Attorney General sought criminal charges against the leadership of the home for the neglect of the veterans in their care – the first time that the criminal elder abuse and neglect law had been applied to the management of an elder care facility. In September 2020, a grand jury returned nine indictments against the Home’s superintendent and its medical director. However, the Superior Court dismissed the indictments on the basis that they were not “caretakers” of those veterans within the meaning of the law.
The Attorney General’s Office appealed the dismissal of the charges to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in which VLS filed an amicus letter (link to PDF of letter), urging the Court to reinstate the criminal charges. VLS argued that the defendants were caregivers who either harmed or created a substantial likelihood of harm to the veterans in their care and that their defenses of inadequate staffing and ignorance of standards of care were insufficient reasons to dismiss the matter before trial. The SJC agreed and issued a decision reinstating the indictments and allowing the cases to proceed so a jury can determine the outcome.
Veteran Suicide Prevention through ensuring access to Mental Health Care
Access to health care is critically important for the mental and physical wellbeing of veterans. Many people who served in the military are eligible for care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). There are multiple ways to apply for VA healthcare and many ways that anyone who served may be eligible, even if they received an other than honorable, bad conduct, or other “less-than-honorable discharge.”
All veterans, regardless of discharge status, have the right to apply for VA healthcare, to receive a written decision, and to appeal any denial. However, for too many veterans, this has not been their experience.
Veterans Legal Services, together with the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, published a guide: How to Access VA Health Care if You Have a Less-than-Honorable Discharge.
The guide discusses how to apply for VA healthcare, how to maximize the chances of being approved, and what options are available to veterans who run into difficulty.
Protecting the rights of economically disadvantaged parents
After leaving the military, Mr. Grullon, a partially-disabled post-9/11 veteran, was struggling to find work and sleeping on a family member’s couch. He fell behind on his child support payments and attempted to represent himself in Court on the matter, but was up against a lawyer from the Department of Revenue who requested the Court order him to pay $500 immediately or go to jail. Even though the other side had the help of a government lawyer, since the matter was technically a civil case, Mr. Grullon was not constitutionally entitled to an attorney. Because he could not come up with $500, he spent ten days in jail and—counterproductively—missed his job training course. VLS appealed the matter to the Supreme Judicial Court due to violations of state and federal law.
The SJC agreed with VLS that Mr. Grullon was deprived of his constitutional rights when the Probate and Family Court incarcerated him without regard to his ability to pay and the Department of Revenue failed to fulfill its obligations to him, stating “[t]he failure of the department and the Probate Court Judge to provide the Turner procedural safeguards, or their equivalent, or to follow Federal regulations, State law, or the department's own policies resulted in the defendant wrongfully being held in civil contempt and spending ten days incarcerated." The Court also strongly reaffirmed the need to carefully set appropriate orders that reflect a defendant's ability to pay, particularly when incarceration is at stake, and noted that the contempt process is frequently not effective in securing support for children.
Statement from VLS’s Anna Richardson: "Mr. Grullon served ten days in jail for being poor. Veterans Legal Services celebrates the Supreme Judicial Court’s acknowledgment that was wrong and the SJC's affirmation of his constitutionally protected rights -- an important step away from the criminalization of poverty. The decision critically underscores and clarifies the obligations of the Court and the Department of Revenue to ensure appropriate, fair child support orders that reflect the actual financial circumstances of individual families, that prevent the wrongful incarceration of parents who lack financial resources, and that avoid unintended consequences, such as negatively impacting employment prospects of child support payors and removing them from their children's lives."
Access to Benefits and Services
Helping Veterans and Their Families Access Subsistence Benefits
During the COVID 19 pandemic, VLS recognized that many veterans and their families would need, and be eligible for, certain benefits and services for the very first time, but they might not know what help was available. VLS worked to spread the word about Massachusetts Chapter 115 benefits, a state cash assistance benefit for economically disadvantaged veterans and their families to help pay for essentials such as food, housing, and healthcare. VLS also advocated for and secured modifications to the Chapter 115 eligibility and application requirements from the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services. These changes reflected that many municipal offices administering these benefits were closed to the public and that certain eligibility requirements, such as job searches, were not reasonable during the height of the pandemic. These efforts were covered in a Boston Globe article and included collaboration with Harvard Veterans Legal Clinic and Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. VLS also helped raise awareness of the availability of these benefits by collaborating with organizations working to fight food insecurity – the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, which added flyers to 40,000 veterans’ food packages distributed at Gillette Stadium, and Food for Free, an organization distributing food to those in need.