Episode 287 Navigating the VA Healthcare System: Tips and Resources Transcript

This transcript is from episode 287 Navigating the VA Healthcare System: Tips and Resources

Welcome back to Drive On, I’m your host Scott DeLuzio and in this episode, we’re talking about VA healthcare.

Many veterans may not be familiar with how the VA healthcare system works. So let me break it down for you. The Department of Veterans Affairs is responsible for providing healthcare services to eligible veterans. VA healthcare is available to those who served in the active military, naval or air service and were discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable. Current and former members of the Reserves or National Guard who were called to active duty (other than for training only) by a federal order and completed the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty also may be eligible for VA health care.

Most Veterans who enlisted after September 7, 1980, or entered active duty after October 16, 1981, must have served 24 continuous months or the full period for which they were called to active duty to be eligible. This minimum duty requirement may not apply to Veterans who were discharged for a disability incurred or aggravated in the line of duty, were discharged for a hardship or received an “early out.” Since there are a number of other exceptions to the minimum duty requirements, VA encourages all Veterans to apply to determine their enrollment eligibility.

Veterans who served in a theater of operations after November 11, 1998, are eligible for an extended period of eligibility for health care for five years after their discharge. Combat Veterans who enroll with VA under this enhanced Combat Veteran authority will continue to be enrolled even after their enhanced eligibility period ends, although they may be shifted to a lower Priority Group, depending on their income level, and be required to make applicable copayments. Additionally, for care not related to combat service, copayments may be required, depending on their financial assessment and other special eligibility factors.

The VA encourages all Veterans to apply to determine their enrollment eligibility, since there are a lot of conditions that could be confusing to figure out on your own. Once a veteran has been deemed eligible, they can enroll in VA healthcare, which provides a wide range of medical services, including preventive care, primary care, and specialty care. VA healthcare also covers mental health care, prosthetics, and medical equipment.

VA healthcare is delivered through a nationwide network of VA medical centers, outpatient clinics, and community-based outpatient clinics. The VA healthcare system also partners with private healthcare providers to offer care that the VA cannot provide or when veterans are unable to access VA facilities.

Veterans can schedule appointments at VA healthcare facilities or request care through telehealth services, which allow them to receive care remotely. I’ve been doing all of my mental health appointments remotely through telehealth, so I can do them from the comfort of my home, and it’s almost as if I’m in the same room with my provider.

As I mentioned earlier, VA healthcare also offers urgent care and emergency services.

It’s important to note that not all veterans are eligible for VA healthcare, and eligibility can depend on factors such as length of service, discharge status, and income level. However, even veterans who may not be eligible for VA healthcare can still receive some benefits and services through the VA. Since the answer to “can I get VA healthcare benefits” is “it depends” it is usually best to apply if you haven’t already and see for yourself.

If you’re a veteran and have any questions about your eligibility or how to enroll, you can visit the VA’s website or contact your local VA healthcare facility.

Through the VA healthcare system, veterans have access to a wide range of healthcare services that cater to their specific needs. These services are provided through VA medical centers, community-based outpatient clinics, and other types of facilities.

Some of the primary healthcare services available to veterans include primary care, which includes preventive care, health screenings, and medical treatment for acute and chronic illnesses. Mental health services are also available for veterans, including counseling, therapy, and treatment for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and others.

Other healthcare services available through the VA healthcare system include specialty care, such as cardiology, oncology, and orthopedics, as well as women’s health services, including gynecology and maternity care. In addition, the VA provides rehabilitation and extended care services for veterans, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and long-term care.

Choosing a primary care provider and scheduling appointments with VA healthcare can sometimes be a challenge, but there are things you can take to make the process easier.

First, you will likely get assigned a primary care provider. While you may not know much about the provider before your first appointment, you’ll likely get a feel for them after you meet. If you don’t think that the provider is a good fit for you, you can always request a different provider. You may know other veterans in your area who like a certain provider. You can ask them who theirs is and request to be transferred to that provider. There is no guarantee that you’ll be transferred or that you’ll get the provider you requested, since you don’t know that provider’s schedule and availability.

Once you have a provider, you can schedule appointments online through My Health E Vet, or by calling the VA facility to schedule. When you get an appointment time, the VA will send you about 8000 notifications reminding you of your appointment date, time, and location. If you have many appointments scheduled, it can actually become overwhelming.

Some providers have a no-show or reschedule policy where they won’t reschedule with you if you frequently miss your appointments. So, if you need to cancel or reschedule your appointment, do it with as much advance notice as possible.

I had a conflict once with a mental health appointment and I sent a message to my provider requesting that we cancel the appointment, and resume our regularly scheduled appointments the following week. She didn’t have a problem with that, so we skipped that week and picked back up where we left off the next week. I know that’s not a primary care provider, but the same idea applies.

While the VA healthcare system is intended to serve our veterans, it is not without its challenges. One of the most common complaints from veterans is the long wait times for appointments. While this can be frustrating, there are ways to make the process smoother.

I’ve had personal experience with this issue. I went to my primary care provider at the beginning of January to get help with a back and neck injury from my time in the Army. She scheduled an MRI, which if I went through the VA would have taken 2 months to get an appointment. Instead, they referred me to community care, and I got the appointment booked within about 2 weeks. Still a bit of a wait, but not quite as bad. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to be seen by the orthopedic specialist for about a month, so there was a bit of a wait there. It turns out that the MRI I had was only ordered for one part of my back, so I had to go in for another MRI. Again, that was about two weeks or so after I got the orders from the specialist I was referred to. Again, I went to the same community care provider.  If you’re following the timeline, the first appointment was at the beginning of January, and the 2nd MRI was in the beginning of March. So 2 months without a treatment plan. At the end of March I had another appointment with a neck pain specialist, who referred me to Physical Therapy. In order to do Physical Therapy, I needed to do a “spine school” virtual class, which I couldn’t get into until about three weeks later. Only then could I schedule an evaluation for physical therapy. We’re now at the end of April for those following along. If I went through the VA for physical therapy, the earliest appointment would be at the end of June. Instead I was referred to community care, which got me an appointment in mid May. Again, not great, but this is an example of two things. One, the wait time at the VA is terribly long in some cases, so schedule appointments well in advance if you can. Two, community care will cut the amount of time you have to wait for an appointment if it’s available.

The VA will offer community care alternatives in cases where the VA can’t schedule an appointment with drive times of 30 minutes for primary care and mental health care, or 60 minutes for specialty care. Or, if the appointment can’t be made within 20 days for primary care and mental health care, or 28 days for specialty care. Also, if the referring physician believes local care is in the veteran’s best medical interest, the veteran qualifies for Community Care.

Another challenge veterans may face is lack of communication or coordination between different healthcare providers, especially if you are seeing providers outside of the VA system. One thing I do whenever using community care providers, is to always request a copy of any records from the appointment. When I got my MRI’s, I requested a CD with the images taken. That way, if the community care provider didn’t forward them to my doctor, I could hand them the CD when I went to my appointment. The same idea goes for any other type of appointment where you may need to provide records to your VA doctor.

Coming up next, we will provide some additional resources and tips for veterans navigating the VA healthcare system.


Welcome back to the show. In the previous segment, we talked about some of the challenges veterans may face when navigating the VA healthcare system and how to overcome them. Now, I want to share some resources that are available to help veterans with their healthcare needs.

First and foremost, it’s important to know that every VA medical center has a Patient Advocate who can assist you with any concerns or questions you may have. These advocates are there to help ensure that veterans receive the best care possible.

If you ever have any concerns or questions about your care or the care of your loved one, the first step is to talk to your treatment team. Your treatment team includes your doctor, nurse, social worker, dietitian, pharmacist, chaplain, therapist, and other healthcare professionals who are there to help you. If you feel like your concerns are not being addressed, don’t hesitate to reach out to a VA Patient Advocate. They’re here to listen to your feedback and help you find a solution.

Sometimes, you might not see eye-to-eye with your provider about your care. If this happens, it’s important to express your concerns and have an open conversation with them. If you still have concerns, you can ask to speak with your provider’s supervisor or the Chief of the Service. And if you’ve tried all of these steps and your concerns are still unresolved, don’t hesitate to reach out to a Patient Advocate. They can assist you with filing an appeal or finding the right resources to address your concerns.

There are also many online resources available to veterans, such as the VA website, My HealtheVet, and the Veterans Crisis Line, which you can reach by dialing 988 and pressing 1.

My HealtheVet allows veterans to access their health records, refill prescriptions, view and manage upcoming appointments, and communicate with their healthcare providers online. It’s actually a pretty good system when it works. Lately I’ve been having trouble accessing it, and I know I’m not the only one because of a warning message on the login screen I saw the other day.

When you are able to access it, you can view your entire medical file, which includes things like notes made by your providers, lab results, diagnoses, and other information. If you’ve been prescribed a medication, you can see how many refills you have left, and order a refill online. The VA will then send you your medication through the mail. I’ve found that it can take up to a week to get medications delivered, so be sure to order the refill with enough time so you don’t run out of your current supply.

Another part of My HealtheVet is the secure message portal. It is basically like email, but instead of the message being sent to your actual email inbox, you’ll get a notification in your email inbox that you have a message waiting for you in the secure message portal. In this portal, your provider can send you a message about test results, answer questions about your health, and my mental health provider sends assignments for me to complete before our next session. You can even request an appointment with a provider if you need one through the portal. The thing I don’t like about the portal is that you never send a message directly to the provider, even if you reply to their message. Instead it gets routed through a scheduler or an assistant who directs the message to where it needs to go. So, if you’re replying to a message from your provider, they’ll typically forward it to that provider. If you’re requesting an appointment with a provider, they’ll check that provider’s availability and contact you to schedule the appointment. It definitely isn’t perfect, but it does a pretty good job at keeping your private medical information private. You don’t have to worry about having your medical records or other private medical information sent to your email inbox, which may be your work email, or a shared inbox with a spouse or something like that. You may not want others to see what your provider has to say, or see what you say to the provider, so the secure messaging portal takes care of that problem.

Another resource that can be helpful is the VA Caregiver Support Program.

This program provides resources and support for caregivers of veterans, including family members and friends who provide care for veterans with disabilities, chronic illness, or other injuries. If you’re a caregiver, you play a critical role in the veteran’s care team, and the VA wants to make sure you have the support and resources you need to provide the best possible care.

The VA Caregiver Support Program offers a wide range of services, including education and training, counseling and support, and respite care. Education and training can help you learn more about your role as a caregiver, and how to provide the best possible care for your loved one. Counseling and support can provide emotional support and help you cope with the challenges of caregiving. And respite care can provide a break for caregivers, giving you time to rest and recharge.

To be eligible for the VA Caregiver Support Program, you must be caring for a veteran who is enrolled in the VA healthcare system and who has a serious injury, illness, or disability related to their military service. The veteran must also meet certain eligibility requirements, including being enrolled in the VA healthcare system and having a qualifying service-connected disability.

If you’re a caregiver, I encourage you to explore the VA Caregiver Support Program and take advantage of the resources and support it provides. You can learn more about the program by visiting the VA Caregiver Support website, or by contacting the Caregiver Support Line at 1-855-260-3274

If you’re having difficulty navigating the VA healthcare system, the Veterans Health Administration’s Office of Patient Centered Care and Cultural Transformation provides a Patient Advocacy Tracking and Reporting System (PATRS) to help you with any issues or concerns you may have.

Now that we have covered some of the services and resources available through the VA healthcare system, let’s talk about how veterans can apply for these benefits.

The first step is to determine if you are eligible for VA healthcare. We talked about this a bit earlier in the episode, but to recap, in order to be eligible, you must have served in the active military, naval, or air service, and have received a discharge other than dishonorable. Current and former members of the Reserves or National Guard who were called to active duty (other than for training only) by a federal order and completed the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty also may be eligible for VA health care.

Additionally, you must meet certain service and income requirements. The VA healthcare system does not have a strict income limit for enrollment, but they do use a system called Priority Groups to determine who gets access to certain benefits.

Priority Group 1 includes veterans with service-connected disabilities, former Prisoners of War, and those who have received a Purple Heart. These veterans are eligible for the most comprehensive benefits package and will not have to pay any out-of-pocket costs.

Priority Group 2 includes veterans with lower incomes and those who have a service-connected disability rating of 30% or more. These veterans may have to pay some out-of-pocket costs, but they will still have access to a wide range of healthcare services.

Priority Group 3 includes veterans with incomes above the VA’s National Income Threshold and below the Geographic Income Threshold. These veterans may have to pay copays for some services.

Priority Groups 4 through 8 include veterans with higher incomes and those who do not have a service-connected disability. These veterans may have to pay higher copays and have access to a more limited set of benefits.

It’s important to note that while income is a factor in determining your Priority Group, it’s not the only factor. Other factors such as your service history, disability status, and medical needs also play a role. You can check your eligibility on the VA website or by contacting your local VA facility.

Once you have determined your eligibility, you can apply for VA healthcare benefits online, by mail, or in person at your local VA facility. The online application is available on the VA website, and the paper application (VA Form 10-10EZ) can be downloaded and mailed in. You can also apply in person at any VA healthcare facility.

When applying, you will need to provide information about your military service, income, and any health insurance you may have. You will also need to provide your Social Security number and other personal information.

After you have submitted your application, it will be reviewed by the VA. You may be contacted for additional information or to schedule a medical evaluation. Once your eligibility is confirmed, you will be enrolled in the VA healthcare system and assigned a primary care provider.

It is important to note that while VA healthcare benefits cover many medical services, they do not cover all services. Some veterans may be required to pay copays or other fees for certain services. It is also important to keep your information up to date with the VA, as changes in income or health insurance coverage may affect your eligibility for VA healthcare benefits.

After the break, we’ll dive into our last segment, where we’ll discuss additional resources available to veterans. So don’t go anywhere, we’ll be right back.


Welcome back to our episode on navigating the VA healthcare system. If you’re just tuning in, we’ve covered a lot of ground already, including the different types of healthcare services available to veterans through the VA, tips for choosing a primary care provider, and resources available to help veterans navigate the VA healthcare system.

Now, we’re going to discuss some tips for better managing your health while using the VA healthcare system.

Managing your health can be challenging, especially when navigating the VA healthcare system. Here are some tips to help make the process a little easier:

First, be an active participant in your healthcare. Ask questions, share your concerns and be involved in the decision-making process regarding your healthcare.

Second, keep track of your medical records and your appointments. The VA offers tools such as My HealtheVet, which we spoke about earlier, that allow you to access your medical records, schedule appointments and communicate with your healthcare team online. When you access your medical records, you can download them to your computer so you always have a copy of those records, which is important especially if you’re applying for disability benefits, need a second opinion, or want to see what your provider’s diagnosis is for a condition..

Third, take advantage of preventive care services, such as flu shots and cancer screenings. These services are available to you through the VA and can help detect and prevent serious health problems. Especially if you’re a post-9/11 veteran who served in areas with burn pits, you’ll want to make sure you get early cancer screenings. You may think you’re too young for certain cancers, but I’ve known several veterans who ended up with cancer in their 30’s. One was a guest on the show early on talking about his experiences, and unfortunately, he lost his battle with cancer. But early detection can literally be the difference between life and death.

Finally, be proactive about managing your mental health. The VA offers a variety of mental health services, including counseling and therapy, to help veterans manage mental health conditions such as depression and PTSD. I’ve been using those services for years now. I’ve talked about it earlier in several episodes, and while I still deal with PTSD, I’m better off than if I didn’t have any help. I know, that’s not exactly a glowing review, but while I don’t think I’ll ever get back to the person I once was, it helps me make the best of the hand I’ve been dealt.

If you’re living with a chronic condition like diabetes, hypertension, or arthritis, it’s important to work closely with your healthcare team to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life. Here are some tips to help you stay on top of your health:

First, make sure you understand your condition and its treatment plan. Ask your healthcare team to explain your diagnosis and treatment options in plain language, and be sure to take notes or record the conversation so you can review it later.

Next, take an active role in your care. This means following your treatment plan, taking your medications as prescribed, and making healthy lifestyle choices like eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and quitting smoking if you’re a smoker.

Learn as much as you can about your medical conditions and the treatments available to you. This includes understanding the benefits and potential risks of different treatments and medications, as well as any lifestyle changes you can make to improve your health. Another important aspect of taking an active role in your care is communicating effectively with your healthcare team. This means being honest about your symptoms and concerns, asking questions, and providing feedback on your treatment plan. You should also make sure that you understand the instructions for taking medications, managing symptoms, and following up with your provider.

It’s also important to communicate openly and honestly with your healthcare team. Let them know if you’re experiencing any new symptoms or if your current treatment plan isn’t working for you. Together, you can work to make any necessary adjustments to your care.

And be proactive about scheduling regular check-ups and appointments with your healthcare team. This can help catch any potential issues early on and keep your condition under control.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, and it’s crucial that we pay attention to both. While I’ve saved it for the end of this episode, it doesn’t mean it’s any less important.

Unfortunately, mental health issues can often be stigmatized or dismissed, which can make seeking help more difficult. However, there are resources available through the VA healthcare system that can help veterans who are struggling with mental health issues.

First and foremost, it’s important to recognize when you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental health issue. Some common signs include changes in mood or behavior, difficulty sleeping, increased anxiety or irritability, or loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, go for help.

In my personal life, I’ve experienced all of those symptoms. I went from a generally happy, friendly person to an angry and irritated person. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten a good night’s sleep that I’m starting to think my insomnia should be classified as a pre-existing condition. A lack of sleep makes me anxious and irritable. And I’ve lost interest in most of the activities that I once enjoyed. It’s like being numb to all the things that once brought you joy. It sucks, and it’s not a healthy way to live. So, yeah, definitely go get some help.

The VA offers a wide range of mental health services to veterans, including individual and group therapy, medication management, and support groups. There are also specialized services for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and depression. These services are provided by mental health professionals who are trained to work with veterans. They may not all have been in combat, but they’ve worked with enough combat vets to understand what we’re going through. The provider I have wasn’t a veteran, but she gets it.

If you’re interested in accessing mental health services through the VA, the first step is to talk to your primary care provider. They can refer you to a mental health professional within the VA system. You can also contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 988 and press 1 to speak with a trained professional. The Veterans Crisis Line is available 24/7 and offers confidential support to veterans in crisis.

It’s important to remember that seeking help for mental health issues is a sign of strength, not weakness. It takes courage to acknowledge that you need help and take the steps necessary to get it. The VA healthcare system is here to support you every step of the way.

After the break, we’ll wrap up the episode with a quick recap and some final thoughts.


Welcome back, and thank you for joining us today. As we come to the end of this episode, I hope that you found the information we shared to be helpful and informative. Before we go, we wanted to take a moment to remind you of some key takeaways from today’s discussion about VA healthcare.

Earlier, we discussed the benefits of VA healthcare for veterans. We talked about how VA healthcare provides comprehensive, high-quality care for eligible veterans, including primary care, specialty care, mental health care, and more.

We then provided tips for navigating the VA healthcare system. We discussed how to choose a primary care provider, schedule appointments, and access VA healthcare benefits. We also talked about the income requirements and priority groups for accessing VA healthcare.

Finally, we talked about the importance of mental health and the resources available for veterans through VA healthcare. We discussed the Veterans Crisis Line and the importance of taking an active role in your own mental health care. Again, the number for the Veterans Crisis Line is 988 and press 1.

Before we wrap up today’s show, I want to encourage all of the listeners to take action and utilize the resources we covered in today’s episode. Whether you’re a veteran or a family member, the VA healthcare system is here to support you. We’ve talked about the importance of taking an active role in your healthcare, whether it’s scheduling regular checkups, managing chronic conditions, or seeking help for mental health concerns. We’ve also discussed resources available to help you navigate the VA healthcare system, including the VA Caregiver Support Program, MyHealtheVet, and the Veterans Crisis Line.

So if you or a loved one is in need of support, I urge you to take advantage of these resources. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help. Remember, you’ve served our country and now it’s time for the country to serve you.

Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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