VA Healthcare: Eligibility and Access

Posted on
May 18, 2021
@charlinjanene via Twenty20

​The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is the largest integrated healthcare system in the US. They serve nine million veterans each year, half of the overall veteran population, at 171 medical centers and 1,283 VHA outpatient clinics throughout the US.  

The VHA directly provides healthcare, and the Veterans Benefit Administration (VBA) determines eligibility for all benefits, including healthcare eligibility.

The VA is a leader in medical research and training. It is a bureaucracy and facilities are not uniform throughout the country. But much of the bad rap it has received relies on outdated information or political squabbling and is a disservice to the millions of veterans who receive quality comprehensive medical and social service care. In addition, VA disability compensation can provide veterans with disabilities far greater monthly compensation and access to resources than any other public income. Veterans should be encouraged to seek out these valuable services that they have earned.  

A veteran discusses their reasons for seeking care at the VA. (2:21)


While the VA would say a veteran may be eligible for VA healthcare benefits if they served in the active military, naval, or air service and did not receive a dishonorable discharge, there are many considerations and access points depending on the type of discharge and time served.  

For instance, only veterans with a fully honorable discharge are eligible for GI Bill benefits. Veterans with an other than honorable (OTH) discharge are eligible for limited mental health services (more on that later). There are other considerations, including the amount of time served in the military.

Recommended Reading: Plan Ahead: Protect Your Rights Before You Leave the Military
After the veteran is discharged, they may want to apply for VA benefits or a discharge upgrade. They will need documentation and the time to get it is while they are still in the military. Here’s a comprehensive list of the materials they will need.


  • If the veteran enlisted after September 7, 1980, or entered active duty after October 16, 1981, you must have served twenty-four continuous months or the full period for which they were called to active duty, unless any of the descriptions below are true:

    • They were discharged for a disability that was caused—or made worse—by their active-duty service, or
    • Were discharged for a hardship or “early out,” or
    • Served prior to September 7, 1980.
  • If they are a current or former member of the Reserves or National Guard, they must have been called to active duty by a federal order and completed the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty. If they had or have active-duty status for training purposes only, they do not qualify for VA healthcare.
  • If they are a combat veteran who served in combat after the Gulf War or in combat against a hostile force after November 11, 1998, they are eligible for free care for five years for any illness that may be related to military service beginning on the date of discharge.  
  • All veterans are eligible for one year of free mental healthcare post-separation.  
Recommended Reading: Requesting Copies of Military Records
Veterans can order military records online or by mail. They will need these records in order to access VA health care and benefits. Here’s how.


Not all veterans are eligible for VA healthcare. Veterans less than honorably discharged receive “bad paper” discharges and may be unable to receive medical care at the VA. This includes veterans with an “other than honorable” discharge that may have resulted from minor misconduct during service or due to behaviors stemming from service-connected conditions.  

It is possible to establish eligibility for these veterans through a change of character of service procedure or through a discharge upgrade. Veteran patients should seek assistance from a County Veteran Service Officer (CVSO) or veteran service agency to pursue these options. We will talk more about character of service determinations and discharge upgrades later in this chapter.  

Veterans with an OTH discharge who are in mental health distress are eligible for emergency stabilization care at the VA. (We will cover this in the next article.)

Watch a former Swords to Plowshares client discuss his bad paper discharge. Video by Brave New Films. (1:34)

Up next...

Read more from this chapter

Community discussion


Be the first to know

Subscribe to our e-newsletter and stay current with veteran issues and news.
REad the latest issue