Options and Opportunities

An Analysis of Colorado’s Veterans Who Are Eligible for but Not Enrolled in VA Health Care

Key Takeaways

  • About 45% of Colorado veterans who are eligible for Veterans Affairs health care services have not enrolled.
  • Eligible veterans who do not enroll in the VA may be missing out on free or low-cost health care services.
  • Veterans and veteran-serving organizations cite access barriers, mistrust, and lack of awareness of eligibility as reasons why people do not enroll in the VA.
May 11, 2023

Military veterans are more likely than the general public to have physical and psychological injuries, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and post-traumatic stress. Yet many Colorado veterans who are eligible for health care services through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are not enrolled. This suggests that there are opportunities for the VA and other veteran-serving organizations to ensure that more of Colorado’s veterans have access to the health care they need.

Colorado is home to more than 371,000 veterans whose service dates range from the 1940s to the present day. About 314,000 (85%) of these veterans were eligible to enroll in the VA for health care services in 2021. But nearly half (45%) of those eligible veterans were not enrolled in the system, according to new analysis from the Colorado Health Institute (CHI).

The reasons people do not enroll in the VA are varied and complex. Some veterans do not know they are eligible for services. For those who do, enrolling in and navigating the VA system can be difficult. Limited access to facilities or mistrust in the VA can also stand in the way. And some eligible veterans prefer getting health care from their community providers through public or private insurance.

But when veterans who are eligible for VA services do not enroll, they may be going without valuable health services — services that the VA was designed to provide as part of its support for those who have served the country in the military.

This report explores who is eligible but not enrolled in VA services in Colorado, the barriers that prevent them from enrolling, and how policymakers and veteran-serving organizations might address those barriers and increase enrollment among eligible veterans who would benefit. To produce this first-of-its-kind analysis, CHI used data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the VA to identify the eligible population of veterans and current enrollment as of March 2021. CHI also conducted a review of the literature and key informant interviews with 14 stakeholders who are veterans, representatives from veteran-serving organizations, or who offered other insight into veterans’ health.

"When we came home, we did not want anything to do [with the VA or Department of Defense]. I think the VA lost track of a whole generation of soldiers."

— A Colorado VSO and veteran

This report was updated to clarify that the 45% of veterans who are eligible for Veterans Affairs health care services — not 45% of all Colorado veterans — are not enrolled in such services.