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Combat veterans waiting for the Veterans Affairs Department to approve their applications for VA health care can now call VA to complete the process.

VA officials announced Wednesday the department is allowing veterans to apply for VA health benefits by phone instead of being required to fill out a paper application.

The move stems from a review last year of the VA Health Eligibility Center applications process, which found the applications of 31,000 combat veterans — mostly Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who automatically qualified for five years of health care — were languishing in a backlog of more than 800,000 names.

Although the former troops automatically qualified for VA health benefits for up to five years after leaving military service, the VA was unable to automatically enroll them, so they were required to complete enrollment forms.

But during the application approval process, the VA’s healthy eligibility computer system determined that the forms lacked details, like personal income information, that is required of normal applicants but not of combat veterans, so the applications were never approved.

Providing a phone option is "the right thing to do for veterans," VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said in a release.

“Enrolling all 31,000 combat veterans with pending applications is the top priority in our effort to fix our enrollment system. Our analysis of our current application process convinced me we could enroll veterans more quickly using this method,” Gibson said.

VA officials said earlier this month they have tried to contact all combat veterans in the health eligibility backlog and have enrolled 5,500.

Combat veterans maintain their automatic eligibility for five years from their EAS. Some veterans, however, have been in the system for nearly two years, reducing to three years their opportunity to be seen at the VA for all their health care needs.

VA acting director for member services Matthew Eitutis said VA is working to enroll all eligible veterans on the pending list and will then determine what the department can do to compensate veterans for health care costs they may have incurred while waiting for approval for VA care.

“We believe we owe them something and we aren't sure what exactly that relief may look like," Eitutis said.

According to a VA release, combat veterans have until July 5 to complete their applications by phone, 855-488-8440.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans health care and  medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com.

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