DEAR ABBY: I am writing because your column reaches thousands of people every day, and I'm hoping you'll send a message to all the veterans of all branches of the service.
An item I read in the Savannah, Mo., newspaper said that if a veteran has not registered at a Veterans Affairs Hospital since Oct. 1, 1996, on Oct. 1, 1998, he or she will lose all medical benefits for life. It went on to say that the VA cannot notify veterans about it -— the information must be disseminated by word-of-mouth or by letter.
I called the VA and it is true. This law will affect thousands of veterans, and many will not learn of it before the cutoff date. It's wrong to deny veterans their rights. Abby, please print this information in your column. -— SUE KITCHEN, UNION STAR, MO.
DEAR SUE: I'm pleased to print your letter, although the news article was in error, and the situation is not as bleak as portrayed.
After contacting the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), I learned that this is a wild rumor spread via the Internet. According to Kenneth W. Kizer, M.D., VA undersecretary for health, "There is good news for veterans who are distressed over INCORRECT information spread via the Internet that suggests they will automatically lose their VA medical benefits if they fail to apply for the VA's new health-care enrollment program by Oct. 1, 1998. It ISN'T SO!
"The VA is required by law to begin an enrollment system for its health-care services by Oct. 1, 1998. However, this does NOT mean veterans who have not applied for enrollment by then necessarily lose their eligibility for VA medical care.
"Veterans can apply at the time they need VA care, before or after Oct. 1. In fact, we have been automatically processing enrollment applications for veterans treated by VA since Oct. 1, 1996.
"Not all veterans who apply may be able to get care, especially higher-income veterans. Enrollment will be based on priority groups specified by law -— the highest priority being given to veterans with service-connected disabilities.
"After enrollment begins, some veterans can still be treated by VA without being enrolled: Veterans with a VA disability rating of 50 percent or higher will receive care without enrolling; veterans with service-connected disabilities will receive care for those disabilities; and veterans discharged while on active duty will receive VA care for those disabilities within the first 12 months of discharge."