The Medical Consumer: Veterans' Benefits

Last year's exposé of substandard conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center had the unfortunate effect of tarnishing the reputation of the Department of Veterans Affairs health system even though Walter Reed is run by the Department of Defense, a separate government agency. In fact, during the last decade, the VA has earned a reputation for providing excellent care, especially for older veterans. Its services are largely free, except for small copayments from higher-income patients.

Among other innovations, it has established the largest integrated health care system in the United States, with electronic records of all its patients. Regardless of their location, VA doctors have immediate access to a patient's medical history. This is one reason that the VA's cost per patient has remained virtually steady, while the costs of medical care at other hospitals and clinics have skyrocketed.

Not only is the medical care provided by the VA cheaper, it is also better. A Boston University study of one million patient records found that males 65 and older who received VA care had a 40 percent decreased risk of death compared to those enrolled in Medicare Advantage's private health plans or HMOs. Not surprisingly, surveys have shown that veterans are happier with the care they receive at VA facilities than patients at private hospitals.

Taking advantage of this high-quality care, however, has become more difficult. Cuts in its budget and the influx of veterans of the Iraq War have led the VA to tighten its eligibility requirements. Priority is given to veterans with service-related injuries or with low incomes as well as veterans who were wounded in battle or taken prisoner.

Nonetheless, since the quality of VA health care is so high, the range of benefits so comprehensive, and the costs so low, it is worth finding out if your loved one is eligible. A good start is to call your VA regional office at (800) 827-1000 and discuss your loved one's eligibility with a service representative.

You might also contact such organizations in your community as the American Legion, AMVETS, the Disabled American Veterans, or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. They often have a veterans service officer who can provide knowledgeable answers about the VA health care system and its eligibility requirements.

Web Resource

Visit the Department of Veterans Affairs Web site for an online health care application.