A veteran getting physical therapy.

You might assume that military veterans get basically free healthcare from the Department of Veterans Affairs. But for thousands of former and current service members, medical care is still costly.

In fact, collectively veterans had almost a billion dollars in medical debt in 2019, estimates Craig Antico, a founder of RIP Medical Debt, a nonprofit debt forgiveness organization. Since 2015, RIP has paid off more than $100 million in veterans’ medical bills, he says.

If a veteran’s health concern isn’t related to military service or hasn’t resulted in their being more than 50 percent disabled, the vet can be on the hook for copays for care received at the VA. And when the VA doesn’t provide a service, it can contract with other providers, including those who provide emergency services, in which case vets may have to cover those costs themselves.

Even veterans who have other insurance may end up with big bills if they go to a non-VA emergency room for a health concern that is not service-related, says Bart Stichman, executive director of the National Veterans Legal Services Program. That’s because that other insurance may require them to first meet a deductible or pay coinsurance, and the VA had previously said it would not reimburse vets for those expenses—even though it would have covered the entire expense if the vet had no other insurance. That practice is now the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

More on Medical Debt

Even without billing errors, inability to pay has consequences. Last spring, 28-year-old Navy veteran Gary Pressley committed suicide in front of the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in Dublin, Ga., after not being able to access medical care and his medications, according to the wrongful death claim filed by his mother, Rhonda Wilson. Billing problems between the provider and the VA meant Pressley couldn’t be seen by his doctor, a problem exacerbated by the fact that “Gary didn’t make a lot of money and lacked the resources to pay separately to see his doctor or find care elsewhere,” says Peter Bertling, Wilson’s attorney.

To help stem a rising tide of veteran suicides, a bill passed by the Senate this year would give the VA greater resources to help provide mental healthcare to those who had been in the military, including local treatment options when needed. Another bill now in the Senate would prohibit the VA from collecting debts from veterans during the COVID-19 crisis.

If you or a family member is a veteran and needs assistance, contact the National Veterans Legal Services Program (202-265-8305).

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2020 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.