"We’re ecstatic," said Terry Bigley, commander of the American Legion district in Tarrant County. "There are still quite a few veterans out there who don’t have the finances to go to a doctor, but they make too much to go to the VA."
With the demand for services far outstripping supply, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi closed enrollment in 2003 to new veterans who earned too much and had no service-related disabilities, so-called Priority 8 veterans.
Priority 1 and 2 veterans, for example, are the most disabled because of service-related injuries or wounds. Principi wanted the VA to concentrate on those most in need of affordable medical care.
The decision never went over well with veterans groups, and it became a highly partisan fight between Republicans and Democrats during the ensuing years.
The prohibition stayed in effect until U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, helped secure $350 million in funding for the VA that eases the income restrictions this summer.
Beginning Monday, the VA will increase its income threshold by 10 percent, opening up VA care to an estimated 266,000 more veterans nationwide.
"This gives the veterans a little bit more flexibility in the amount of income they can have," said Chris Sandles, assistant chief of medical administrative services with the VA’s North Texas system.
For example, in the Fort Worth area, including Johnson and Parker counties, an unmarried veteran can now earn up to $39,820 a year and get medical care from the VA.
In Dallas and Denton counties, that same unmarried veteran can now earn up to $40,975 a year. In Hood County, the amount is $38,610. The income threshold goes up as the number of dependents rises.
Veterans who applied for treatment this year and were denied will be automatically enrolled, if they qualify. Veterans denied in past years will have to reapply with more recent income proof.VA officials can only estimate the number of veterans who will now qualify and will seek service this year, but the number they arrived at was 2,200, or about 2 percent growth.
"There are over 500,000 veterans in North Texas, so there is a significant growth opportunity," Sandles said. "This is definitely something that as awareness is raised, we could see a larger impact."
He said the VA reviewed the potential impact on current patients and enrollees, as well as on staff, even doubling and tripling the estimate as a worst-case scenario.
"I don’t foresee this having any major impact on our service-connected veterans," Sandles said. "The whole idea of the VA is to care for those who shall have borne the battle. This is the first attempt to get back to that original promise."