The difference between urgent care and emergency care is a chin-scratcher for many, especially for veterans who rely on the Veterans Affairs (VA) healthcare system. 

There are countless stories of veterans footing the bill for a visit to urgent care because of confusing rules and their own missteps in the process. Arming yourself with knowledge of the process is a surefire way to avoid the headaches that can come with being bounced back and forth like a ping-pong ball between an urgent care clinic, the VA, and the billing processor.  

It’s no secret that veterans can be stubborn. I know this because I have worked as a paramedic for 10 years, both for private hospitals and now as with a fire station, and convincing a veteran to get care is one of the hardest parts of my job. I’ve had veterans in the midst of a heart attack insist they don’t need to go to the Emergency Room. I’ve also explained to other vets with minor aches and pains that they could face a major bill if the VA determines they did not need a trip to the ER for complaints that an urgent care is well-equipped to handle.

Some have thanked me. Others have told me to shut up and drive the ambulance. Like I said, we’re a stubborn group.

This story is not medical, legal advice, or official VA policy. Instead, it’s to help explain the convoluted process for rapid, emergency- and urgent-level care that many veterans seek out only to find themselves in an expensive billing headache. If you ever have questions about your eligibility, coverage, or anything else that pertains to your healthcare through the VA, please reach out to your local VA or Veterans Service Officer. 

Emergency care vs. urgent care

Under VA health insurance, billing and coverage differ depending on whether you need emergency or urgent care. Emergency care is for people under threat of dying or losing limbs or senses. Serious trauma from a car crash or an accident that threatens eyesight or amputations falls under emergency care, as do immediately life-threatening health conditions like cardiac arrhythmias or strokes. 

Urgent care is for health issues that require immediate treatment, from physical accidents to contagious sicknesses, but that are not life-threatening and unlikely to require specialized treatment like surgery, blood transfusions, or intubation. Ailments like the flu, a sprained ankle from basketball, or a urinary tract infection are all examples the VA gives as reasons to visit an urgent care clinic.

The problem veterans face is that the VA covers visits to an emergency room very differently than visits to an urgent care. 

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ER visits

For emergency room visits, the VA will cover nearly all care that is immediately needed to save a patient’s life, regardless of where they get it, but there are still rules you’ll need to follow.

First, if you find yourself at a non-VA emergency room, you need to inform the VA within 72 hours. You can still get covered if you miss this deadline, but you’ll have to go through a reimbursement process that will likely take longer.

Second, you’ll only be covered for an extended ER stay until you’re healthy enough to be transferred from the non-VA facility to one in the VA’s network. According to the VA’s website, the VA will “only cover non-VA emergency care until we can safely transfer you to a VA or other federal facility.”

But an urgent care facility can make more sense if you don’t need a full emergency room but can’t wait to see your primary care doctor. Just make sure you understand the VA’s rules. 

Veteran eligibility for urgent care treatment

The list of conditions that qualify for coverage at in-network urgent care clinics can be a grey area, as the VA lists these conditions:

  • Minor injuries and illnesses previously listed in the above section.
  • “Diagnostic services,” I.E., x-rays and specific lab tests.
  • “Some types of medicines and vaccines”

Another pitfall for veterans can be in the types of care available at an urgent care facility, even ones in-network for the VA. Though some care is obviously urgent like those listed above, many urgent care facilities have begun to offer more routine care, like employment physicals or “wellness” visits. But without the correct prior approvals, VA healthcare is likely to rule that you should see your VA primary doctor for routine care and not cover the cost of that urgent care visit.

The easiest way to make sure your treatment is covered, regardless of its severity, is to visit a VA facility. Veterans can go to any VA Urgent Care clinic, which can be a stand alone clinic or under the same roof as their ERs. Veterans with a 50% disability rating or higher have full healthcare coverage through the VA and its local, VA-approved urgent care clinics.

Gulf War veterans have benefits specific to them and with their own criteria. As of March 5, several more veterans can sign up for VA-sponsored healthcare without first applying for VA benefits. Your priority group will determine your coverage, but whether you can receive community care depends on different criteria.  

To be eligible to receive treatment at VA hospitals, in-network urgent care clinics, and same-day service clinics, you must be enrolled in VA health care and have received care at a VA or in-network provider in the past two years. If you have any questions about your eligibility, this is straight from the VA’s website: 

You can check your eligibility by calling the VA at 800-698-2411 (TTY: 711).

Flu shots are free for eligible veterans. Clinics cannot charge veterans copays for the shot. If you mistakenly pay a fee for that service, contact the VA for reimbursement. It’s on a case-by-case basis, so be ready for a yes or no response. 

Urgent care under VA rules also has a specific set of copays, which depend on a veteran’s priority group, which is based on their service-connected disabilities and service record. For 2024, priority groups 1 to 5 do not have a copay for the first three visits to urgent care within a year, and each subsequent visit will be a $30 copay. Group 6 has the same setup for any condition covered by special authority, like toxic exposures and military sexual trauma

All other priority groups will pay a $30 copay. If the clinic tries to charge you at copay at the visit, be wary. Your copay should go through the VA, not the clinic. All copays due will come via a mailed bill from the VA. The VA says, “Don’t pay a copay” if the urgent care tries to charge you at admission.

If the clinic staff insists you have to pay before receiving assessment and treatment, call your VA. 

Out-of-network providers

When you are sick and need help to get back on your feet, the last thing you may be worried about is whether a healthcare provider is  in-network or not. But, even though it won’t cause an initial headache, that bill that comes in the mail will,  especially if you thought you were covered. 

Sometimes, providers cancel their agreement with the VA as in-network providers but don’t advertise that publicly. Other times, coverage is location-specific. But since you shouldn’t go to urgent care with true life-threatening emergencies, take the time to check whether the clinic is in-network here.

When you arrive at covered urgent care, you’ll need your government-issued ID and urgent care assistance card, which can be a physical copy or an image on your phone. Most clinics will know whether they can treat veterans under the VA’s coverage. 

So what happens if a clinic mistakenly bills a veteran and they pay it? Veterans should call the VA when they realize their mistake, and the VA may reimburse them. But if you receive care at an out-of-network clinic, it doesn’t matter what reason; you will be responsible for the entire bill if you don’t have other insurance to cover you. 

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. Reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988, and you’ll be connected to trained counselors.

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