Friday, February 13, 2009

Five years free VA care for veterans

Five years free VA care for veterans

By Arlene Gross

February 11, 2009 | 02:59 PM

Two recent changes by the Veterans Administration will expand health care eligibility for veterans, thanks to a provision under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008.

Military veterans who served in combat since Nov. 11, 1998, including veterans of the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, are now eligible for five years of free medical care for most conditions from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The measure increases a two-year limit that has been in effect for nearly a decade.

"In these hard times, anything to help, particularly returning vets, is great," said Mario Buonpane, chairman of the Huntington Veterans Advisory Board.

The five-year deadline has no effect upon veterans with medical conditions related to their military service, according to a statement issued by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans may apply at any time after their discharge from the military — even decades later — for medical care for service-connected health problems. The new provision applies to care in a VA hospital, outpatient clinic or nursing home. It also extends VA dental benefits to 180 days after discharge, from a previous limit of 90 days for most veterans.

Combat veterans discharged between Nov. 11, 1998, and Jan. 16, 2003, who never took advantage of the VA's health care system have until Jan. 27, 2011, to qualify for free VA health care.

The five-year window is also open to activated reservists and members of the National Guard, if they served in combat after Nov. 11, 1998 and were discharged under other than dishonorable conditions.

A second initiative announced by the VA last month opens enrollment to its health care system to about 265,000 veterans whose incomes exceed current limits.

Starting July 2009, Priority 8 veterans, whose incomes are up to 10 percent higher than current VA eligibility limits, will be eligible for coverage.

In 1996, Congress established a priority-based enrollment system for VA and a uniform package of medical benefits for all enrollees. The legislation required that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs reassess the demand for services each year, and determine whether to change eligibility requirements to provide timely, quality care to all enrollees.

A tremendous growth in the number of veterans seeking enrollment led the VA to initially suspend enrollment for Priority 8 veterans, the lowest priority classification.

VA Department computer systems are being modified to accommodate the changes.

Originally opened in April 1928, the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, on Middleville Road, is the only federally funded hospital for veterans on Long Island. Northport also has three community-based primary care/mental health clinics in Plainview, Patchogue and Westhampton.

With 201 hospital beds and 150 long-term care beds, the Northport facility treated more than 33,500 outpatients last year and 1,781 patients returning from Iraq and Afghanistan since October 2001, said Joe Sledge, spokesman for the facility.

Any expansion of veterans' health care is obviously a good thing, Sledge said. He added that veterans who haven't yet used VA services but are interested should contact the medical center director and speak with an eligibility specialist.

"We'll assist them in any way possible to determine their eligibility for health care," Sledge said. "It's our privilege to serve veterans. That's why we're here."

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