US Veterans Health Care Benefits Program Basics

VA Helping Veterans Avoid Foreclosure. Getty Images

The Veterans Medical Care Benefits program provides inpatient and outpatient medical services, hospital care, medicines, and supplies to eligible US military veterans.

In order to receive health care, veterans generally must be enrolled in the Veterans Administration (VA) health system. Veterans may apply for enrollment in the VA health system at any time. Veterans' family members may also be eligible to receive benefits. There is no monthly premium for VA care, but there may be a co-pay for specific services.

Medical Services Benefits Package Basics

According to the VA, the veteran’s health benefits package includes “all the necessary inpatient hospital care and outpatient services to promote, preserve, or restore your health.” 

VA medical centers provide services including traditional hospital-based services such as surgery, critical care, mental health, orthopedics, pharmacy, radiology and physical therapy.

In addition, most VA medical centers offer additional medical and surgical specialty services including audiology & speech pathology, dermatology, dental, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, podiatry, prosthetics, urology, and vision care. Some medical centers also offer advanced services such as organ transplants and plastic surgery.

Benefits and Services Vary from Veteran to Veteran

Depending on their particular eligibility status, each veteran’s total VA health benefits package may vary. For example, some veterans’ benefit package may include dental or vision care services, while others’ may not. The VA’s Veterans Health Benefits Handbook contains information on individual eligibility for benefits covering treatment of illness and injury, preventative care, physical therapy, mental health problems, and general quality of life issues.

Treatment and services are provided in accordance with generally accepted medical standards based on the judgment of the veteran’s VA primary care provider. 

Veterans may receive health care benefits without being enrolled in the VA health system if:

  • they have service-connected disabilities of 50% or more;
  • they are seeking care for a disability that the military determined was incurred or aggravated in the line of duty; or
  • they are seeking care for a service-connected disability only.

Veterans with service-connected disabilities living or traveling overseas must register with the Foreign Medical Program, regardless of their degree of disability, in order to VA health care benefits.

General Eligibility Requirements

Eligibility for most veterans' health care benefits is based solely on active military service in one of the seven uniformed services. These services are:

  • The Army
  • The Navy
  • The Marine Corps
  • The Coast Guard
  • The Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service
  • The Commissioned Officer Corps of the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Reservists and National Guard members who were called to active duty by a presidential Executive Order typically qualify for VA health care benefits. Merchant Marines who served during World War II and former cadets of the military Service Academies may be eligible as well. Some other groups may also be eligible for some VA health benefits.

To be eligible, veterans must have been discharged from service under other than dishonorable conditions. Applications filed by veterans whose separation papers indicate their service was other than honorable will be separately reviewed by the VA.

There is no special requirement regarding the length of military service for veterans who entered the service before the 1980s. Veterans who entered active duty as an enlisted person after September 7, 1980, or as an officer after October 16, 1981, will probably have to meet a minimum active duty requirement:

  • For reservists and National Guard members who were called to federal active duty by a presidential executive order, the usual requirement is service for the full length of time the veteran was ordered to serve.
  • For all others, the usual requirement is 24 months of continuous service.
  • There are a number of exceptions to these rules.

Returning service members, including Reservists and National Guard members who served on active duty in a theater of combat operations, have special eligibility for hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care for two years following discharge from active duty.

Because of budget requirements, the VA cannot offer health care to every veteran who meets these basic requirements. The law contains a complex system of priorities, mostly based on disability, income, and age.

Online Eligibility Tool: The VA offers this  online tool for determining eligibility for VA health care benefits.

How to Apply

For more information on applying for Veterans Medical Care Benefits, contact the Veterans Health Benefits Service Center online or by calling 877-222-8387.