The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) operates a number of programs providing financial, medical, and other assistance to veterans. Perhaps the most significant of these benefit programs (at least for older veterans) may be the free or low-cost medical care available through VA hospitals and other medical facilities.

Veterans benefits are available only to people who've performed active service in a uniformed branch of the military, which includes the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), and the Women's Air Service Pilots (WASPs). Active service is defined as either active duty or active duty for training.

The term active duty literally refers to full-time service in one of the uniformed branches of the military forces. However, it also includes full-time duty in the Commissioned Officer Corps of the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), formerly known as the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Additionally, under certain circumstances, full-time members of the Merchant Marine who served during wartime and wartime members of the Flying Tigers may also qualify.

Generally, membership in the National Guard or Reserve Corps does not qualify a person for veterans' benefits. However, if an individual in the Guard or Reserves is called up for full-time duty (or activated), this period of service is called active duty for training. A person who's injured or becomes ill during this period of active duty may be eligible for veterans' disability benefits if the injury or illness eventually leads to a disability.

The VA administers a system of benefits to veterans who have a disability that can be connected in any way to the veteran's period of service. More lenient than public disability benefit programs, the VA program can render assistance to veterans even if they're only partially disabled, and almost regardless of the cause as long as the disability occurred while performing some duty related to the veteran's service.

If the condition arose while an individual was on active duty during peacetime, the disability must have resulted directly from his or her military duties. In reality, this rules out only injuries that may have been sustained while on leave, or while absent without leave (AWOL) or committing some other offense punishable by the military. Virtually all other activities – including playing for the base softball team, eating in the mess hall, traveling to and from training, and going on or coming back from authorized leave – are considered part of one's military duties.

The rules governing compensation are even more lenient if the condition or injury occurred during a time of war or national emergency. In such cases compensation may be granted even though the injury or illness was completely unrelated to military duties, such as while on furlough or leave. The officially designated periods of war or national emergency include:

  • World War I - April 6, 1917 through November 11, 1918. If the veteran performed any active service during this basic period, the time period is extended to July 1, 1921.
  • World War II - December 7, 1941 through December 31, 1946.
  • The Korean War - June 27, 1950 through January 31, 1955.
  • The Vietnam War - August 5, 1964 through May 7, 1975.
  • The Persian Gulf War - August 2, 1990 through a date yet to be determined by Congress or Presidential Proclamation.

The VA operates more than 150 hospitals across the country. In addition, a large number of outpatient clinics also provide healthcare services for veterans. Specialized care may be accessible at no charge through a VA hospital; the same care might be unavailable or beyond the veteran's means if dependent upon private healthcare providers.

Typically, a veteran is eligible for medical care in a VA facility if he or she cannot afford the care anywhere else. Additionally, dependents and survivors of a veteran who has service-connected disabilities, or who receives a veterans' pension, are entitled to care in VA facilities if they, too, are unable to afford private care. The VA can also pay for long-term care of an elderly or disabled veteran in a private nursing home if there is no availability in a VA facility.

Unfortunately, even though a veteran may qualify for treatment at a VA hospital, he or she may not always be able to receive it. The reason for this is that while there are nearly 100,000 beds available in VA hospitals across the nation, there are many more than 100,000 veterans and dependents who are in need of medical care. To meet these demands (and particularly to address the problem of the limited number of hospital beds) the VA has established a priority system for deciding who gets treatment first directly from VA hospitals, clinics, and doctors. This priority system is as follows:

  • Priority Group I - veterans with service-connected disabilities rated at 50% or more disabling.
  • Priority Group 2 - veterans with service-connected disabilities rated at 30% to 40% disabling.
  • Priority Group 3 - veterans who are former prisoners of war, were discharged for a disability incurred or aggravated in the line of duty, have service-connected disabilities rated 10% to 20% disabling, or who were disabled by treatment.
  • Priority Group 4 - veterans who're receiving aid and attendance or housebound benefits.
  • Priority Group 5 - veterans with a 0% disability rating whose income and assets are below certain dollar limits.
  • Priority Group 6 - Gulf War veterans receiving care solely for Gulf War-related disorders not amounting to compensable disabilities, veterans with compensable 0% service-connected disabilities, and World War I veterans.
  • Priority Group 7 - all other veterans. If accepted for treatment, this group of veterans must pay a copayment for services.

Many veterans who are eligible for VA medical treatment may also be covered by Medicare. The general rule for collection of benefits is that for any specific medical treatment, the individual may choose either one of the benefit programs, but not both. This means that if the veteran is charged copayments for treatment at a VA facility, Medicare cannot pay for them. However, if a private doctor or facility treats the veteran and the VA pays most but not all of the costs, Medicare may then be able to pay some of the unpaid amount. On the other hand, if a private doctor or facility treats the veteran and Medicare covers the bills, no unpaid portion can be submitted to the VA.

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