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Rural Veterans and Access to Healthcare

A disproportionate share of veterans live in rural America. According to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics and the Veterans Health Administration - Office of Rural Health (VHA-ORH), of the nearly 20 million veterans in the U.S., 5.1 million live in rural America. 2.7 million of these rural vets are enrolled in the Veteran Affairs (VA) health care system, with 57% of rural enrolled veterans 65 years and older, and 44% affected by a service-related condition.

Veterans living in rural areas have difficulty accessing health services for reasons similar to other rural residents. Some rural veterans face poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse, which further exacerbate their health issues. In addition, veterans may be unaware of the benefits, services, and facilities available to them through the VA.

VA health facilities have worked to address rural access issues for veterans by developing partnerships with area community health clinics, Rural Health Clinics (RHCs), and hospitals to deliver care via telemedicine, mobile VA clinics, and Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs).  The VA also depends on nonprofit veteran service organizations to help veterans access healthcare and basic human services. The VA is addressing the issues affecting rural veterans with programs such as the Veterans Choice Program, which provides an option for rural veterans meeting certain criteria to receive care from a rural community provider.

Frequently Asked Questions


What types of health programs are available to rural veterans?

The Department of Veterans Affairs provides a variety of health benefits and services to veterans meeting certain military requirements. Health benefits available for eligible veterans include:


Who is eligible for VA health benefits?

There are a variety of eligibility requirements depending on the type of healthcare sought and the status of the service member. For details on eligibility requirements of active duty members, National Guard members, Reserve members, and retired veterans and affected families, see Health Benefits: Veterans Eligibility.


How can healthcare providers, counselors, social workers, and clergy help rural veterans who are in need of healthcare, behavioral health, or disability related services?

Healthcare providers and other professionals wanting to help rural veterans in need of healthcare and related services can encourage veterans to apply for veterans health benefits if they have not already done so. The Veterans Affairs Health Benefits website provides information about health benefits, eligibility requirements, and the forms for enrolling in VA healthcare.

Healthcare providers can form a partnership with the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and provide services to rural veterans as a non-VA facility if their facility meets the requirements of the Veterans Choice Program. The FAQ What opportunities are there for rural healthcare facilities to collaborate with the VA? provides more specific information on this topic.

Several resources are available from Veterans Affairs to help guide the professional who is involved in the healthcare of veterans.

  • I am a Clinician, Researcher, or Trainee – this section of the VA website provides tools and training resources for clinical professionals
  • Community Provider Toolkit – contains tools and resources for clinicians providing mental health services
  • Learn About Military Culture – provides the education, tools, and resources to help healthcare professionals understand the military culture and modify their clinical practice to appropriately treat service members or veterans.
  • Community Clergy Training to Support Rural Veterans Mental Health – sponsored by VHA-ORH. This program trains community clergy and chaplains in the skills necessary to support veterans and their families who are dealing with physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual concerns
  • VA Facilities Locator & Directory – provides information on the closest VA healthcare facility to a specific location
  • VHA Office of Rural Health – establishes and expands national programs and partnerships focused on access to healthcare for rural veterans at the federal, state and local level.
  • VHA Office of Community Care – provides additional information about non-VA medical care including emergency medical services, Indian Health Services/Tribal Health Program, and Patient-Centered Community Care (PC3)
  • PTSD: National Center for PTSD – includes training materials and other resources to aid in the assessment and treatment of veterans who may have PTSD
  • PsychArmor Institute – provides free online courses on issues relevant to military and veteran communities, with a focus on mental health, developed by experts for healthcare professionals, educators, and a variety of caregivers.

What is the Veterans Choice Act and what does it mean for rural veterans and rural healthcare providers?

On August 7, 2014, the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 was signed into law. It includes a variety of reforms to improve and expand access to quality healthcare for veterans. Most importantly, this law developed the Veterans Choice Program (VCP), which requires the VA to offer non-VA healthcare to eligible veterans who live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility and when wait times are longer than 30 days or when deemed necessary by their healthcare provider.


What opportunities are there for rural healthcare facilities to collaborate with the VA?

With the passage of the Veterans Choice Act, there are three different ways a rural non-VA health facility can provide service to veterans in rural locations. Rural healthcare facilities can participate as:

  • Community Based Outpatient Clinics (CBOCs) – contracted by the VA to provide primary care services to veterans
  • Patient-Centered Community Care Networks (PC3) – offer contracts to healthcare networks that provide primary care, mental healthcare, preventive services, and specialty care
  • Contract providers under the Veteran's Choice Program (VCP) – contracted with the VA through a third party administrator (TPA) — Health Net or TriWest — as a pre-authorized healthcare provider

For information about contracting with the VA, see The Non-VA Medical Care Program Fact Sheet for Interested Providers. This publication provides information about the Patient-Centered Community Care and Veterans Access, Choice, & Accountability Act programs and contact information for Health Net and TriWest. In addition, the National Association of Community Health Centers' publication, Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act: What Health Centers Need to Know, provides information on how health centers can participate in the programs resulting from the Veterans Choice Act.


What are the special health concerns faced by rural veterans?

The health issues faced by rural veterans may be different from those of the general rural population due to disabilities and adverse health effects caused by their period of service. The VBA Annual Benefits Report, 2016 lists the following conditions as prevalent service-connected disabilities affecting veterans:

  • Tinnitus and hearing loss
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Musculoskeletal issues
  • Scars, general
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Paralysis of the sciatic nerve
  • Migraine

According to the VHA Office of Rural Health, the most common diagnoses for rural Veterans in outpatient settings include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, acid reflux, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depressive disorder, as well as one or more service-connected disabilities.

Service-related and other health issues experienced by rural veterans can be exacerbated by the lack of specialty care in rural areas, as well as other conditions such as poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse.


Are there any VA health resources targeted specifically to the rural Native veteran?

Several programs and resources have been developed by the VHA-ORH supporting culturally competent rural Native veteran healthcare. These programs include:

  • Native Domain Telemental Health Services – provides clinical care to Native veterans who live in rural and remote areas, and who need mental healthcare to treat conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Tribal Veterans Representatives (TVR) – act as a liaison between veterans, the VA, and other organizations to help Native veterans access the necessary information and complete the process for healthcare services and other veteran's benefits
  • Native Veteran Services Directory – provides information, including contact information, regarding programs and services available to Native veterans by state

Veterans Affairs (VA) also collaborates with the Indian Health Service (IHS) to coordinate and share resources. In 2012, the agencies signed a reimbursement agreement allowing the VA to reimburse IHS clinics for providing direct healthcare to AI/AN veterans enrolled in the VA's system of care.


Are there grants or programs to assist veterans in rural areas with transportation to VA medical centers and other VA and non-VA facilities for medical care?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs program Grants for Transportation of Veterans in Highly Rural Areas awards grants to veterans service organizations that use innovative approaches to assist veterans in rural areas with transportation to VA medical centers and other VA and non-VA facilities for medical care. A list of grantees providing transportation options to Veterans living in eligible rural counties is available from the Highly Rural Transportation Grants website. For additional programs that may assist veterans in accessing medical care, see the funding section of this topic guide.

Also, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Hospital Service Coordinator Directory provides a state-by-state list of Hospital Service Coordinators (HSCs), their affiliated VA Medical Centers, and contact information. HSCs manage DAV transportation programs for veterans needing medical care.


What organizations provide assistance to rural veterans to help them maintain their health needs?

Several non-VA organizations provide assistance to rural veterans to help them address their health needs. Some of the more common organizations that are accessible in rural areas include:

  • American Legion – provides assistance, outreach, and support for veterans and their families with VA claims and healthcare benefits
  • Disabled American Veterans (DAV) – assists disabled veterans and their families when applying for benefits and services through the VA and other federal agencies
  • National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV) – offers technical assistance and resources for a national network of community-based service providers, including local, state and federal agencies that provide housing, health services, food and job training for homeless veterans

The organizations section of this topic guide provides an annotated list of non-VA and VA organizations that provide assistance to veterans.


What is the infrastructure within the federal government for addressing concerns regarding rural veterans' health? 

The VHA Office of Rural Health (VHA-ORH) advocates on behalf of rural veterans to improve healthcare delivery, and support research and program development to address their challenges. The VHA-ORH partners with other federal, state, and rural communities to optimize the use of technology, develop additional access points to care, and increase healthcare options for rural veterans.

The VA's work related to rural veterans is informed by the Veterans Rural Health Advisory Committee (VRHAC). The committee advises the Secretary of Veterans Affairs on healthcare issues affecting veterans in rural areas. It examines ways to enhance Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare services for rural veterans by evaluating current programs and identifying barriers to healthcare. For more information, see the VRHAC page on the VHA Office of Rural Health website.


What are some demographics that characterize veterans who live in rural areas?

According to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, rural veterans are estimated to total 4,700,557 individuals or 24% of the entire veteran population. Other demographics include:

Rural Veteran Demographics
Period of Service % of Rural Veterans
Gulf War (9/2001 or later) 11.4%
Gulf War (8/1990 to 8/2001) 16.4%
Vietnam Era 41.1%
Korean War 9.9%
World War II 4.5%
Sex
Male 93.5%
Female 6.5%
Race and Hispanic/Latino Origin
White 92.0%
Black or African American 4.8%
American Indian/Alaska Native 1.1%
Asian 0.3%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 0.1%
Hispanic or Latino 2.6%
Poverty
Below Poverty in the Past 12 Months 6.8%
Disability Status
Disability Status with Any Disability 31.1%
Source: Table S2101, 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates

Despite increases in the veteran population during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the number or rural veterans is expected to decline. According to a 2017 USDA Economic Research Service chart, between 2006 – 2016 the rural veteran population has declined 26% or by 1.1 million people.


Last Reviewed: 4/30/2018