MIL-OSI USA: AG Ferguson request bill to help more than 35,000 Washington veterans access state benefits passes legislature unanimously

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Source: Washington State News

Current law excludes many veterans from vulnerable communities, including those forced out by “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

OLYMPIA — Today, the Washington state Legislature unanimously passed Attorney General request legislation sponsored by Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, that will expand state benefits to more than 35,000 Washington veterans. It now heads to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.

Most of the Washington veterans affected by the bill, House Bill 2014, already qualify for federal benefits. Due to Washington state’s narrower definitions, they are unable to access state benefits.

The Attorney General Request legislation changes state law to ensure veterans who qualify for federal veterans benefits also qualify for state benefits. In addition, the bill ensures any veteran discharged solely for their sexual orientation or gender identity can qualify for state benefits after a review, even if they do not qualify for federal benefits.

Ferguson estimates the bill will allow more than 35,000 additional Washington veterans to access state benefits, based on census and other federal data. State benefits include things like admission to state veterans’ nursing homes, veteran preference in state job applications or down payment assistance for a new home.

Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, sponsored a Senate version of the bill.

“If Washington’s veterans can get benefits from the VA, then they should be able to get critical benefits from the state they live in,” Ferguson said. “This simple and long overdue change will improve the lives of tens of thousands of Washington veterans. I appreciate Rep. Volz’s partnership on this bill.”

“This bill would affect a small percentage of service members that did not receive an honorable or dishonorable discharge,” said Volz. “But it’s a big deal for these service members who need these benefits. It will not change anyone’s level of service who has already received an honorable discharge. This legislation is simply trying to define what the standard is to qualify for benefits and under what circumstances. Any service member with any discharge other than a dishonorable one should have access to all veteran benefits and programs.”

Washington law currently only offers benefits to veterans who were discharged from military service under a very narrow set of conditions. This disproportionately impacts veterans who are BIPOC; identify as LGBTQ and were discharged before the military ended its restrictive policies like “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”; survived military sexual assault or had mental health conditions like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Examples of state benefits

Washington state offers veterans benefits such as:

  • Home ownership assistance
  • Admission to state veterans nursing homes
  • Hiring preference for veterans in public employment
  • Protection against discrimination due to veteran status
  • Free license plates for veterans with disabilities

Defining “veteran”

When a military service member leaves service, they receive paperwork that describes their reasons for leaving and the “character” of their service.

For example, the most common type of form is the DD-214. On that form, the service branch will fill in the service member’s “characterization of service.”

Under current Washington law, if that box says anything other than “honorable,” the veteran will not qualify for almost all state veterans benefits. At the same time, federal law allows veterans who left the military under other characterizations of service to qualify for Veterans Affairs benefits.

There are many reasons a veteran may have something other than “honorable” on their discharge paperwork — but are still not “dishonorable.” Other options include “general under honorable conditions” or “other than honorable.” Data shows that BIPOC veterans disproportionately receive these characterizations, as well as those who reported sexual assault or experienced mental illness during their service.

For example, Black veterans are twice as likely as white veterans to get a “general under honorable conditions” discharge.

More than 22% percent of service members who left the military after reporting a sexual assault had a less than “honorable” characterization on their discharge paperwork, according to a 2016 investigation by the Department of Defense’s Office of the Inspector General.

Those veterans are eligible for federal benefits, sometimes after a review. The new legislation will ensure that veterans who are eligible for federal benefits will be eligible for state benefits.

The bill will also ensure veterans discharged solely due to their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender identity, as shown by their discharge or pre-discharge paperwork, will be eligible for state benefits, even if they do not qualify for federal benefits.

One example: From 1994 to 2011, the military had a discriminatory policy called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prohibiting openly gay, lesbian and bisexual individuals from serving in the armed forces. The military discharged more than 13,000 service members under the policy, often for “homosexual conduct.” The paperwork for those veterans might say “honorable,” or it could say “other than honorable,” or even “dishonorable.” There was no consistent practice.

The federal government announced policies to review the discharges of these veterans to help them qualify for federal benefits. The new law will mean Washington veterans will not have to wait for that process in order to get the state benefits they deserve.

Attorney General’s Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance

The Attorney General’s Office of Military and Veteran Legal Assistance (OMVLA) was created by Attorney General Request legislation in the 2017 session to promote and facilitate access to civil legal services for Washington’s current and former military service members. OMVLA is authorized to recruit and train volunteer attorneys, maintain a registry of available services and volunteers, assess requests for legal assistance and refer such requests to registered volunteer attorneys and legal aid providers.

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Washington’s Attorney General serves the people and the state of Washington. As the state’s largest law firm, the Attorney General’s Office provides legal representation to every state agency, board, and commission in Washington. Additionally, the Office serves the people directly by enforcing consumer protection, civil rights, and environmental protection laws. The Office also prosecutes elder abuse, Medicaid fraud, and handles sexually violent predator cases in 38 of Washington’s 39 counties. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.

Media Contact:

Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.aho@atg.wa.gov

General contacts: Click here

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