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VA BENEFITS UNDERUSED NATIONWIDE


By LCpl. Nathan J. Ferbert

MARINE CORPS BASE CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. (Jan. 20) -- The majority of
people eligible for Veterans
Administration benefits and health care do not know it, said Gilbert
Hernandez, director of public affairs for VA Long Beach.

Those people don't know that in 1996, eligibility for some veterans
benefits, including health care, was expanded.
Now, all veterans can use VA medical care.

"People think a vet is someone who served in war, but everyone who
served at least a 24-month tour and received an
honorable discharge can get medical care," he said.

Veterans should take their DD214 (discharge papers) to the nearest VA
office to receive a medical card, he said.
Through the Veterans' Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996, an
enrollment system was put in place to manage
health care services. Following the legislation, the Uniform Benefits
Package was created to provide a standard
health plan to enrolled veterans.

Prior to 1996, most veterans allowed to use the VA had service-connected
disabilities. Now, even nondisabled vets
are eligible. Veterans must apply for enrollment to receive care, Hernandez said. They
must fill out a 10-10 EZ form. The form
can be accessed via the Internet at www.va.gov/health/elig. or at any VA
facility.

Once the veteran is enrolled, the VA establishes his priority based on
his percentage of disability and his income. If a
vet makes less than $22,351, he qualifies for free care. Veterans who
exceed that amount make co-payments for
care based on their income.

In the San Diego area, there are more than 289,211 veterans eligible or
qualified for VA care, but only 10 percent are
using it. The VA believes this is due to dwindling numbers of World War
II veterans and a lack of involvement in the
system by large numbers of Vietnam and Gulf War veterans, Hernandez
said.

Still, most veterans don't take advantage simply because they don't know
they can.
Hernandez believes more should be done to improve awareness.

"A better follow-up education program is necessary," he said. He
recommended mailing follow-up information to
veterans two or three months after they leave the military.

The VA's answer to this problem lies within Veterans Integration
Services Network 22, set up to raise awareness
about potential benefits. It feeds information to veterans via
television, radio, newspapers and the Internet.

"If they don't know they're a veteran, how are they going to use their
benefits?" Hernandez asked.

At Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton, only retired and medically retired
veterans can enroll in Tricare, the military health
care system here, said Navy Capt. Rebecca Nulty, director of Managed
Care. All other groups of veterans should go
to one of several VA hospitals or community-based outpatient clinics for
medical care.

Between 1997 and 1998, VA added about 600 clinics, bringing the total to
1,100 facilities nationwide.

The closest facilities are in Vista (North County), Chula Vista (South
Bay) and Mission Valley. Information on clinics is
available on the VA Web site or at preretirement seminars held at the
Base Training Center/Theater every two months.

Part of the seminar is devoted to educating veterans on VA benefits,
Nulty said. The Naval Hospital gives briefs to
about 100 veterans per seminar. A spokesperson hands out information on
health care and dispels myths about the system and eligibility.

One myth, according to Hernandez: VA hospitals mistreat veterans. It's a
stigma attached to the system in movies,television and books, he said.

A recent national survey by the National Partnership for Reinventing
Government found that 80 percent of VA
health-care users are more satisfied than two years ago.

To speak to a veteran's benefits counselor about enrollment, care and
facilities, call 1-877-222-VETS, or visit the VA
Web site at http://www.va.gov/health/elig.

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Email: Howard Bell