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Vets return, but not always with healthcare

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"No veteran now waits longer than 30 days for their first appointment," she says. "In terms of access to facilities, we've got more than 158 hospitals and more than 800 clinics, and we contract with service providers in communities where there may be a need."

The VA's policy are less clear when it comes to vets like Wilf, who sustained injuries after he was discharged. He and his family spoke with four different VA representatives and were told that because his injuries were not combat related, he was ineligible for VA care.

After inquiries from reporters, the VA in Washington said that if Wilf had been enrolled in the VA system, he would have been eligible for treatment for noncombat problems because he had just returned from combat duty. But he would have to pay for a percentage of the cost if he were able, and he would not be a priority case. "Part of the problem is the way the law reads. It says it's mandatory to provide care for a condition possibly related to service, but doesn't really address treatment of an unrelated condition," says Gary Baker, head of the Eligibility Center at the VA.

Wilf has since filled out the application to enroll but is still waiting for it to be processed. In the meantime, the hospital where he was treated has forgiven most of the $54,000 bill because he was technically indigent. But he still has another $24,000 in related bills to pay.

Wilf was active duty, but some returning troops in the National Guard and Reserves have also found themselves without healthcare. When they were activated, they were eligible for Tricare, the Defense Department's health-insurance program, but they lost coverage when they returned home.

Last summer, however, Congress voted to extend Tricare coverage for 180 days after deactivation. And last month, it voted to extend the coverage again, this time allowing Guard and Reserve troops to receive a year of Tricare coverage for every 90 consecutive days they serve.

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