If you are a veteran who served in active duty for at least 24 consecutive months and were honorably discharged, you're eligible to enroll in health care from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
But as with any federal entity, keep in mind several guidelines.
"Getting in the door and into the system can be challenging,” says Kayla Williams of Reston, Virginia, a veteran of the Iraq War. “But once that's done, the system is so beneficial. It's comprehensive, integrated care. All of your providers can see all of your records."
3 ways to apply
• Online. Veterans may fill out and submit their benefit application electronically through the Veterans Affairs (VA) website. After completing the application, a confirmation message will appear immediately on the veteran's screen. If recently discharged, the VA will gather the veteran's service information for him or her.
• In person. Veterans may go to their local VA health center to apply for medical services that include more than a dozen specialties.
• By mail. Veterans who choose to mail their VA Form 10-10EZ to the VA can download the form from the VA's website. The veteran or someone with the veteran's power of attorney must sign and date the form.
Regardless of how it's filed, the application includes information about the veteran's military service, demographics and, as applicable, financial status, Meagan Heup of the VA's New York Regional Office of Public Affairs says in email.
Once enrolled, a veteran doesn't need to reapply annually for benefits. Still, some veterans, perhaps with help from their caregivers, will need to update their financial information yearly.
Veterans who cannot locate their military service records and discharge papers can request a copy of the records electronically from the VA or mail a completed VA Form SF-180 to the National Personnel Records Center at 1 Archives Drive, St. Louis, MO 63138.
Be aware that a 1973 fire at the records center may have destroyed records for some Army and Air Force veterans as young as their mid-70s, but the VA does have steps in place to try to reconstruct service records for those who request it.
'Priority group’ determines cost
The amount of care that a veteran qualifies for depends upon how he or she is ranked in the system. These priority groups range from 1 — people with a service-connected disability that is at least rated as 50 percent disabling or a Medal of Honor recipient — to 8 — group members who may not be eligible because of income or other limitations.
These levels affect copayments, eligibility for certain treatments and services, and how quickly you can enroll in the VA program; they can be updated. If a veteran and caregivers believe the rating system isn't working for them or find the system confusing, Williams recommends that they get in touch with a veteran service officer (VSO).
The VSO can submit benefits claims to the VA, and their services are free. VSOs also help gather information to support claims and can aid in appealing denied claims.
Cecily Christian of Columbia, Maryland, who served in the Army, calls VSOs “lifesavers." “I didn't know the process at first,” she says. “It's crucial to have people like that involved — ones who can really help you."
Depending upon a veteran's priority grouping, the VA may reimburse for traveling to medical appointments. In addition, deductibles sometimes can be waived if they cause a financial burden to the veteran. Through it all, take the time to investigate and don't be reluctant to ask questions.
Based on eligibility and income, some veterans may have to pay a fixed amount as a copay for treatment. But even veterans already enrolled in Medicare may find further assistance for hearing aids or vision care that Medicare might not pay for.
"The VA offers a staggering number of services on all fronts to veterans who ran in age from 21 to 110,” says Rosalia Scalia, a public affairs specialist with the VA Maryland Health Care System. “Now with mobile technology, veterans can even attend some appointments via their phones or iPads."
Indeed, some vets now can meet with their health care providers and keep up with appointments by using the VA Video Connect app. Vets interested in using such technology should talk with their VA provider.
Almost 75% of all vets are older
More than 9 million veterans, about 47 percent of all veterans in 2019, are 65 or older, according to the VA; nearly three-quarters are 50 and older. In addition to health care, they may be eligible for such benefits as disability compensation, education, home loans, insurance and pensions.
VA health care users by age
The percentage of Veterans Affairs health care enrollees age 65 and older has risen in the past five years.
Vets who are looking to stay active can join the Gerofit program. With 15 centers across the country, Gerofit offers a variety of activities, including walking, balance and tai chi.
The program is now available in these locations: Ann Arbor, Michigan; Baltimore; Boston; Cincinnati; Denver; Durham, North Carolina; Honolulu; Little Rock, Arkansas; Los Angeles; Miami; Nashville area, Tennessee; Pittsburgh; Roanoke area, Virginia; Rochester area, New York; and Seattle. Some veterans older than 55 have gone on to compete in the VA's national Golden Age Games.
While the VA has gotten what Williams calls “a bad rap” at times, she says the agency does care about veterans and their health. She worked for two years at the VA central office in Washington, D.C., and when a veteran died during her site visit to San Diego, Williams remembers hospital staff saluting the gurney as it went down the hallway.
"They care,” she says. “And what they can offer is more than regular insurance."
A writer in residence at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Tim Wendel is the author of several books, including Cancer Crossings and Summer of ‘68.