Make your home page

Indy veterans: How to navigate the VA health benefits process

A Mirror Indy file image shows a Navy veteran’s hat hanging at a barber shop. (Photo by Doug McSchooler for Mirror Indy)

(AP) — On Memorial Day, Indianapolis honored those who died serving their country. 

Mirror Indy is also celebrating veterans who are still with us and may need help with physical or mental conditions connected to their service. 

Use the guide below to learn more about the claims process and local resources to navigate it. You can also take Mirror Indy’s quiz to find out if you may be eligible for health benefits.

Who is a veteran?

In Indiana, a veteran is someone who has served in any branch of the armed forces, their reserves or the National Guard with an honorable discharge. Under federal law, the definition includes people who have served in active military, naval or air service released under all conditions except dishonorable. 

“Many people think they can’t receive VA health care or file for disability because they weren’t in combat,” said Gordon Smith, a U.S. Army veteran and veteran service officer in Marion County. “That is not true.”

What is a veteran service officer?

Veteran service officers are a free resource in your community. They will assess your service situation to determine whether you are eligible for any benefits and help you apply for them. 

“They know how the system works and become your legal advocate,” said Ronald Rice, the director of Indianapolis Office of Veteran Services. 

How do I make a claim? 

Connect with a veteran service officer who can discuss your claims and how to file them. They will help pull medical records and other documentation to prove your claims — a process that can take up to 10 months to a year.

A good rule of thumb, Smith said, is to make a claim as soon as possible; as time passes, they become harder to prove. But it’s also never too late to try and see what’s possible. Smith said he worked with World War II veterans with successful claims from 70 years ago.

“Every person’s situation is unique,” he said. “It’s a very complicated process and the best way is to let a veteran service officer walk you through it.” 

Call the Indianapolis Office of Veteran Services at 317-327-8387 (VETS) or reach out to an officer directly. You can also reach the American Legion at 317-916-3605.

What if I don’t have an honorable discharge?

You may not be eligible for certain benefits, but you can apply for a discharge upgrade or correction. 

You have a strong case if you can show your discharge was connected to mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, sexual assault or harassment or discrimination based on your sexual orientation. 

Contact a veteran service officer or Indiana Legal Services

What if my claim was denied?

A veteran service officer can help you navigate the appeals process.

“You can get denied for whatever reason, maybe they didn’t have a diagnosis at the time or adequate documentation,” Smith said. “That doesn’t mean you can never get it. We just have to work a little harder.” 

How long do benefits last? 

Your benefits may decrease over time and claims are re-evaluated every four years.

“The VA is giving you a monthly compensation for a disability they agree you have,” Smith said. “They expect you to go in and get it treated.”

He recommended treating the money as supplemental and seeking resources to manage your finances in the long run. 

What are the different state and VA health benefits? 

State and federal health benefits differ.

The Indiana Veterans’ Home in West Lafayette provides long-term nursing care, short-term rehabilitation, independent living and memory care to honorably discharged veterans and their spouses. Special benefits are available for veterans with a disability rating of 70% or higher. 

Generally, people who have at least two years of active duty service are eligible for health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs, which covers preventative care, health exams, inpatient hospital services, surgeries, emergencies, urgent care visits, mental health, prescriptions, assisted living and more. Serving in certain combat zones could waive some time requirements for veterans. Those stipulations can be found here. 

In Indianapolis, the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans’ Administration Medical Center located at 1481 W. 10th St. provides primary care and other hospital services. 

The Indianapolis VA Clinic at 777 N. Meridian St. supports veterans facing homelessness with health and dental services. 

An additional clinic at the Ortho Indy YMCA on 5315 Lafayette Road provides art therapy, weight management services, rehabilitation and physical therapy.

What about disability claims?

Veterans who have an injury or illness connected to their service can apply for disability compensation. The monthly tax-free payments cover conditions that occurred during service or developed afterward. Pre-existing conditions that worsened because of service can also qualify. 

Certain conditions are presumptive, meaning you do not have to prove that your service caused them to receive benefits: 

  • Chronic illnesses that appeared within one year of your discharge, such as hypertension, arthritis, diabetes or peptic ulcers. Certain chronic conditions that appear more than a year after service, including tuberculosis and Lou Gehrig’s disease, are also covered. A complete list of illnesses, which must be at least 10% disabling, can be found here.
  • Illnesses or injury caused by exposure to toxic chemicals or materials. The PACT Act expanded eligibility for VA health care for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals and those who served during Vietnam, the Gulf War and post 9/11 eras. Some examples include:
  • Illnesses or injuries from your captivity as a prisoner of war. 

Mirror Indy reporter Mary Claire Molloy covers health. Reach her at 317-721-7648 or email Follow her on X @mcmolloy7.