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Hidden Veterans: Many Don't Apply for Free Health Care

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CEDAR RAPIDS - Tens of thousands of veterans in Iowa served their country with honor. But many are unaware of one major benefit they earned through their service: Health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We call them 'hidden veterans,'" L. Tammy Duckworth, the VA's assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, said during a visit to Iowa this fall. She said the department knows such veterans exist but can't always find them.

About 6 million veterans are enrolled for VA health care not even one-fourth of the estimated 26 million veterans across the country.

Bill Sagon, 60, of Cedar Rapids, is one of these hidden veterans. "I didn't know what was available for me and what benefits there were," said Sagon, who served on a Navy destroyer in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. He recently went to the Linn County VA office to apply for benefits, just in case he ever needs them. "Now I know there's something there for me when I retire or if something happens to me," he said. "I have that opportunity to use."

Kayla Davis, 48, of Cedar Rapids, who is serving with the Iowa National Guard, said she had no idea her time on active duty might make her eligible for VA benefits. "I just never looked into it because I'm still in the service and was basically going to wait until I got out in four more years," she said.

Eligibility starts with an application for enrollment. The application is available online or at any VA facility. The VA encourages all veterans to apply, noting that the applications help determine the number of veterans who could be seeking medical care.

That number and the usage of each VA facility affects the amount of federal funding each VA medical facility receives from Congress. So the more enrollments and use of department facilities, the more potential funding, officials said.

The VA appropriation for medical service this year is $34.7 billion. The medical services budget for the Iowa City VA Medical Center was $257.8 million for fiscal 2009.

David Green, 24, of Coralville, a National Guard medic who served in Iraq, uses VA medical care because of a service-related disability. But Green believes other young vets might think such care isn't for them. "Even guys that are coming back, they think that the older veterans need it more than they do," he said.

That's a common misconception, according to Barry Sharp, director of the VA Medical Center in Iowa City. "Any veteran that has worn the uniform and honorably served this country has earned these benefits," he said.

VA officials acknowledge that some veterans may have been discouraged from applying. Six years ago the government tightened eligibility requirements. Many vets who applied then were not accepted, probably because their incomes were too high.

But those guidelines are once again being reviewed, "trying to open the enrollment to all veterans," said Don Tyne, director of Linn County Veteran Affairs.

The shaky economy is another reason for veterans to apply for health care benefits, Tyne said. "I get a lot of people coming in who see layoffs in the horizon and loss of health care benefits, and so they're applying now," he said.

Sharp, too, encouraged veterans who may have been rejected once to reapply.

Some veterans might think the quality of medical care they'll receive under the VA doesn't compare to civilian medical services. Sharp disagrees. "It's the same level of care you would receive in any community health care system," he said. "We are held to the same measures that any community hospital or health care system has to meet. "

In the end, enrolling for VA benefits can end up helping other veterans or yourself, the officials said. Said Davis: "I think it's important for people to take advantage of the service because that's what they're there for, and if people aren't using them, they could easily disappear or go away."

Green said he appreciates the security that VA health care provides. "It's kind of nice," he said, "to look at the fact that I can pretty much come here for the rest of my life and hopefully not have to worry about not having some place to go to get medical attention."

Sagon agreed. "We do our service to our country, and we basically need a little help when we get older and when we are disabled," he said. "It makes me glad to be able to contribute to that."

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