Veterans Get 3 Mental Health Visits a Year for Free with VA's New Copay Exemption

A Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility.
A Department of Veterans Affairs medical facility. (Ross D. Franklin/AP File Photo)

Department of Veterans Affairs beneficiaries won't have to pay copays for their first three mental health appointments of each year thanks to a new exemption. Meanwhile, patients who paid copays starting in the latter half of 2023 will receive automatic refunds.

The VA announced the exemption Wednesday. Backdated to June 27, 2023 -- when the first refunds will kick in -- the benefit also comes with an end date of Dec. 29, 2027.

The copay exemption applies to outpatient visits for mental health care and substance use disorder, according to the VA's announcement. Its intent is to expand access to mental health services and lower veterans' costs. It doesn't cover medication copays.

Read Next: F-35 Crashes Outside of Albuquerque Airport; Pilot in Serious Condition

Lawmakers included the exemption in the Joseph Maxwell Cleland and Robert Joseph Dole Memorial Veterans Benefits and Health Care Improvement Act of 2022, also known as the Cleland-Dole Act, signed into law in December 2022 to address a range of needs in addition to mental health care.

To qualify for the exemption, a mental health or substance use visit must have been with the VA itself or with one of the department's community care providers.

VA beneficiaries who paid outpatient mental health or substance abuse copays starting in the latter half of 2023 don't need to do anything and will receive their refunds automatically, the VA said.

"We want every veteran, regardless of their financial status, to have access to the mental health care they deserve," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in the announcement. "We are constantly working to expand access to mental health care, and we won't rest until every veteran has access to care whenever and wherever they need it."

Meanwhile, the VA announced earlier this month that its wait times for mental health appointments have fallen.

Veterans seeking mental health care from the VA for the first time now wait an average of 17 days to see someone. That's faster than the average wait of 22 days for a first-time primary care patient. For the month of April, mental health wait times were 7% shorter than in April 2023, the VA said.

In addition to mental health visits, the VA's resources include the Veterans Crisis Line to talk to someone immediately (dial 988, press 1); online self-help training and a smartphone app for veterans who can't easily reach a VA medical center; "telemental" health visits with VA providers offered remotely; and the option, introduced in 2023, for certain veterans experiencing a suicidal crisis to get free emergency care at any VA or non-VA facility regardless of their VA enrollment status.

According to the Wednesday announcement of the copay exemption, 60,000 veterans have received the new benefit of free emergency care since it began in January 2023.

Related: VA Says It Cut Wait Times for Primary, Mental Health Care as Veteran Enrollment Surged

Story Continues