Who Does the Department of Veterans Affairs Serve? By Michael McCarthy
This is the first article of a series that explores how the VA works from the inside out.
The title of this article is a question I would often ask people shortly after they learned I worked at the VA. It sounds simple; however, it is layered with multiple viewpoints and technical definitions.
The most common answer I hear is, “. . . well, Veterans, of course!” These people are not wrong but they are not altogether right. Veterans are served by the VA but not all Veterans are served equally in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), the portion of the VA that provides medical care.
To receive VA medical benefits, a Veteran must first enroll. This cumbersome process includes a long application* with an income review and physical. So much so, the “backlog” of applications for new Veterans and appeals for Veterans already enrolled often makes news.
Once the application is submitted and reviewed, the VA assigns the Veteran to a priority group based on their service-connected disability or income, or both. A service-connected disability is identified as “injuries or diseases that were incurred in or aggravated during active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training.” There are no less than eight priority groups. One priority group has six subgroups.
The difference between the priority groups can be stark. Veterans in priority group 1 are 50 percent or more service-connected (SC) disabled or unemployed as a result. These Veterans receive all their medical care for free (no copays) including dental and nursing home care. Veterans in priority group 8 must pay a copay for all non-SC healthcare received, dental is only offered if it SC, and nursing home care is not offered. Thus, coverage is a sliding scale of sorts.
In the end, the VHA serves all Veterans who are enrolled and prioritizes Veterans who were the most injured or need the most support due to financial issues. In some ways this makes sense, in other ways the situation creates confusion and various perspectives on the effectiveness of the agency.
Michael McCarthy is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of Data Science at Utica College.
*To see the questions a Veteran must answer one can access the Benefits Explorer available from the VA.