Veterans' Eligibility for VA Health Care

Most veterans who served on active duty are eligible for VA health care, but priority for benefits depends on disability and other factors.

By , Attorney · Northeastern University School of Law

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides health care for veterans at VA hospitals and clinics throughout the country. If you're a veteran of the United States Armed Forces, you might be eligible for health benefits. Read on to learn who's eligible for VA health care benefits (and who's not), what type of care and services the VA covers, what groups of veterans are eligible for specialized services, and how to apply for VA health care.

Eligibility for VA Health Care Benefits

If you had active duty in the military and were discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, you may be eligible for VA health care benefits. Many veterans have to have served a minimum amount of time to qualify for health care benefits.

If you enlisted after September 7, 1980, or entered active duty after October 16, 1981, you must have served for 24 continuous months to be eligible for VA health care.

If you're a member of the National Guard or Reserves, you might qualify if you:

  • had active duty by federal order, and
  • served for the full period you were called for.

Veterans who served before September 7, 1980, don't have to meet a minimum service requirement to be eligible for VA health care.

Which Veterans Aren't Eligible for VA Health Care?

If you haven't had at least 24 continuous months of active duty service, you might not be eligible for VA health care. But if you were discharged due to a service-connected disability or hardship, you might still be eligible for VA health care.

And although some members of the Reserves and National Guard can qualify, if your active-duty status was for training purposes only, you generally won't qualify for VA health care.

Finally, you likely won't be eligible for VA health care if you have "bad paper," that is, if you received:

  • an other than honorable discharge
  • a bad conduct discharge, or
  • a dishonorable discharge.

Even with some "bad paper," you might still be eligible for VA health care if you've had multiple periods of service and had at least one discharge that wasn't other than honorable. Learn how to get VA benefits with "good" and "bad" paper.

If you're not eligible for VA health care because of your discharge status, you might be able to restore your eligibility through:

Of these options, asking for a character of service evaluation is the quickest and most likely to restore your eligibility for VA benefits.

How to Get VA Health Care

In most cases, you need to apply for VA health care, but in some cases, enrollment is automatic.

Who's Eligible for Automatic Enrollment in VA Health Care?

In some cases, the Veterans Administration will provide you with health care without you applying for it. Automatic enrollment can happen if you:

  • have a service-connected disability rated 50% or higher
  • need care for a disability that the VA has decided was service-connected but for which the VA hasn't given you a rating (applies only during the first year after discharge), or
  • are getting care just for a service-connected disability.

How to Apply for VA Health Care

You can apply for VA health care by calling or visiting your local VA medical center or VA regional office (find yours using the VA locations tool). You can also apply for benefits by calling 877-222-VETS (8387) Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (ET). Or you can complete the Application for Health Benefits online.

If you're completing the application yourself and need help, call 877-222-VETS (8387) or use the VA's chatbot.

VA Health Care Priority Groups

Unfortunately, the Veterans Health Administration doesn't have enough resources to provide care to all veterans who need it. To address this issue, the VA has created eight health care priority groups. Your available benefits depend on your priority group.

When you apply, the VA will assign you to a priority group. You might have co-pays to be placed in some priority groups. If you're eligible for more than one group, the VA will put you in the higher priority group.

How the VA Determines Your Priority Group for Health Care

If you have a service-connected injury or illness, your priority group will be determined by your disability rating. Former POWs and recipients of certain military honors also get special priority.

In addition, VA grants priority based on other factors, including financial need. If you're not receiving veterans disability compensation or a VA pension, you'll probably have to provide financial information to show that your annual income is below the VA's income threshold.

As the VA's resources increase, members of more priority groups are enrolled in VA health care, and as resources decrease, fewer groups are enrolled. It all depends on annual funding and how many veterans are in the higher priority groups.

To determine which group you might belong to, see the VA's description of priority groups.

Special Priority for Recently Discharged Combat Veterans

Combat veterans who were recently discharged have five years of special enrollment status after their discharge under the enhanced health care eligibility program. If you're a recently discharged combat veteran, it's a good idea to enroll even if you don't need VA health care right now. Doing so preserves your right to receive VA health care if you later need it.

What Care and Services Does VA Health Care Cover?

Regardless of priority group, if you're eligible for VA health care, you'll receive coverage for most medical care and services, including the following:

  • preventive care like:
    • medical exams
    • immunizations
    • health education (like nutritional education), and
    • counseling on genetic (hereditary) diseases
  • hospital care for injuries and illnesses, including:
    • surgeries and medical treatments
    • kidney dialysis
    • acute care (for a severe illness or injury or after surgery)
    • specialized care (like organ transplants and cancer treatments), and
    • emergency care (in VA medical centers and sometimes in non-VA health centers)
  • urgent care (when you need care right away, but your condition isn't life-threatening), and
  • prescription drug coverage.

Your VA health care coverage also includes:

  • diagnostic testing (including routine eye exams)
  • therapy and rehabilitation services, and
  • mental health services.

Veterans in certain priority groups also qualify for dental coverage. And depending on your needs, financial situation, and available space, your VA health care might also cover home health services and assisted living. (Learn more about VA nursing home care.)

Special VA Health Care Benefits

The VA offers special health care benefits and services to veterans with certain medical conditions, including mental health issues. You can get some of these services even if you aren't eligible for other VA health care benefits.

VA Counseling for Military Sexual Trauma

The VA has increasingly recognized the need for services for veterans subjected to sexual trauma during service. Even if you're ineligible for VA health care, you can still receive counseling for military sexual trauma (MST) and health care for any related physical injuries or illnesses. To be eligible, the trauma must have occurred:

  • while you were on active duty, or
  • during active duty for training (if you served in the National Guard or Reserves).

Learn more about getting VA health care and disability compensation for military sexual trauma.

Mental Health Services for Combat Veterans

If you're a combat veteran, you can access free counseling even if you're not receiving VA benefits or enrolled in VA health care. To learn about your mental health care options, call the VA hotline at 800-827-1000 from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday.

If you're a veteran in crisis or worried about a vet who's struggling, you can connect with a Veterans Crisis Line responder 24 hours a day by dialing 988, then pressing 1. Or start a confidential chat by texting 838255.

VA Treatment Centers for Spinal Cord Injuries and Disorders

The VA has special treatment centers to meet the needs of veterans with spinal cord injuries and disorders. For more information or to locate a treatment center near you, see the VA's Spinal Cord Injury and Disorders webpage.

VA Health Care for Camp Lejeune Veterans and Their Families

VA health benefits are available for veterans and their family members exposed to contaminated drinking water at the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina (and Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River) between 1957 and 1987. Many of these veterans, their spouses, and children later developed cancer and other illnesses as a result of drinking water contaminated with toxins, including:

  • trichloroethylene (TCE)
  • benzene
  • perchloroethylene (PCE), and
  • vinyl chloride.

Symptoms of Camp Lejeune Water Contamination

The symptoms of having been exposed to toxins from Camp Lejeune water contamination vary depending on the diagnosis, but signs can include:

  • persistent fatigue
  • frequent infections
  • easy bleeding or bruising
  • blood in your urine
  • petechiae (tiny red spots on your skin)
  • unexplained weight loss
  • back or bone pain, and
  • swollen lymph nodes.

Medical Coverage for Camp Lejeune Veterans

The Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012 provides VA medical and hospital services to Camp Lejeune veterans who served on the base for at least 30 days. A veteran has to be diagnosed with one of 15 medical conditions (listed below) that are recognized as related to the base water supply. (38 U.S.C. §1710(e)(1)(F).)

The law also provides for health care for veterans' family members who develop one of the conditions if they lived on base for at least 30 days. (38 U.S.C. §1787.)

Federal regulations establish the following eligibility and coverage details:

  • Your 30 days of service or living on base don't have to be consecutive.
  • Service or living at Camp Lejeune includes all base housing, facilities service members used (like training sites), and any area within the Camp (or MCAS New River).
  • Camp Lejeune veterans are enrolled in the VA healthcare system as priority group #6.
  • Medical Co-pays aren't required for treatment of any of the 15 conditions listed below.
  • The VA will reimburse veterans' family members only for medical expenses not covered by insurance or other third-party payor. (38 C.F.R. § 17.410 (e).)

Fifteen Camp Lejeune Medical Conditions That Qualify for VA Health Care

If you have any of the fifteen diseases and conditions listed here, you can get VA health care without a copay:

  • breast cancer
  • bladder cancer
  • esophageal cancer
  • hepatic steatosis (liver problems)
  • infertility in women
  • kidney cancer
  • leukemia
  • lung cancer
  • miscarriage
  • multiple myeloma
  • myelodysplastic syndromes (bone marrow problems)
  • non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • renal toxicity (kidney problems)
  • scleroderma (a skin disease), and
  • neurobehavioral effects, including Parkinson's disease and conditions like:
    • poor memory or concentration
    • dementia
    • depression
    • post-traumatic stress disorder
    • insomnia or fatigue
    • motor problems, and
    • other neurobehavioral conditions.

(Learn how a 2022 law allows veterans and their families to sue if they were harmed by exposure to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune.)

Presumptive Service Connection for Some Camp Lejeune Veterans

The 2012 act also established a presumptive service connection for Camp Lejeune veterans, reservists, and National Guard members who have developed certain illnesses. To qualify, you must have served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days from August 1, 1953, to December 31, 1987. (38 CFR 3.307(a)(7)(iii).) Having an illness with a presumptive service connection makes it easier to get service-connected disability compensation from the VA.

Not all of the Lejeune-related health conditions that qualify for VA health care qualify for a presumptive service connection. For instance, you can get VA health care for esophageal cancer, breast cancer, female infertility, miscarriage, and scleroderma, but those conditions don't qualify for a presumptive service connection. Here are the eight conditions that qualify for presumptive service connection for people who lived or served at Camp Lejeune:

  • adult leukemia
  • aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes
  • bladder cancer
  • kidney cancer
  • liver cancer
  • multiple myeloma
  • non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and
  • Parkinson's disease.

What Happens After I Apply for VA Health Care?

Once you've filed your application for VA health care, the VA will process it and notify you:

  • about your eligibility for VA health care, and
  • whether you were automatically enrolled in VA health care.

If you were automatically enrolled, you'll be notified of your priority group and whether you'll be responsible for co-pays.

This notification will also explain how to appeal if you disagree with the VA's decision. If you were wrongly denied benefits, contact a disability lawyer certified by the VA.

Updated November 20, 2023

Talk to a Lawyer

Need a lawyer? Start here.

How it Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you
Get Professional Help

Talk to an attorney.

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you