Thanks to the Fiscal Year 2008 Defense Authorization Act, which was passed into law on January 28 military members who served in combat are now eligible for free medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs, for five years following discharge, even if their health problems are not service-connected.
To be eligible, members must have served in a combat zone after Nov. 11, 1998, and must have received a discharge under conditions that the VA does not classify as dishonorable (the VA makes individual decisions as to whether or not one's discharge reason is "dishonorable" or not, and this has nothing to do with the military's discharge characterization.
The five-year window is also open to activated Army Reserve and National Guard members, if they served in a theater of combat operations after Nov. 11, 1998 and were discharged under other than dishonorable conditions.
Combat veterans who were discharged between Nov. 11, 1998 and Jan. 16, 2003, and who never took advantage of VA's health care system, have until Jan. 27, 2011 to qualify for free VA health care under the provisions of the new law.
It's important to note that this is separate from the normal free VA health care for veterans with service-connected health problems. Veterans may apply at any time after their discharge from the military -- even decades later --for medical care for service-connected health problems.
The five-year program applies to health care received in a VA hospital, outpatient clinic or nursing home. The new law also authorizes free dental care for combat vets for 180 days following discharge for non-service connected dental needs.
Veterans who take advantage of this five-year window to receive VA health care can continue to receive care after five years, although they may have to pay co-payments for medical problems unrelated to their military service, VA officials said. Co-payments range from $8 for a 30-day supply of prescription medicine to $1,024 for the first 90 days of inpatient care each year.