The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers many benefits to veterans, ranging from healthcare to monthly disability payments for qualifying service-connected conditions.1,2 Many veterans who struggle with substance abuse or drug addiction are able to use their VA healthcare benefits to access treatment.5 While these benefits can be life-saving, some may be worried about losing their VA benefits, especially those who struggle with alcohol or drugs. The good news is that veterans will not lose benefits for having a substance use disorder.
Table of Contents
- Is Substance Abuse or Addiction a VA Disability?
- VA Disability Eligibility & Requirements
- Can You Lose VA Disability Benefits from Substance Abuse?
- VA Disability Ratings
- Will Substance Abuse Affect Other Disability or Benefit Claims?
Is Substance Abuse or Addiction a VA Disability?
Substance abuse or addiction by itself is not considered a VA disability. However, the VA does recognize that substance abuse disorders may be a response to other service-connected physical or mental health conditions that are considered VA disabilities.4 If your substance use stems from another condition recognized by the VA, you may be eligible for VA disability benefits.4,8 The VA-recognized conditions that may lead to substance abuse are usually directly related to combat or service injuries, and can range from a physical injury to chronic pain to mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. As a result, the VA’s mental health services can extended to substance abuse disorders. Some of the substance abuse treatment programs potentially covered by VA benefits can include drug or alcohol detox, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT).3,5
The VA is aware of this connection as well, which increases the likelihood of a substance use disorder being covered by the VA. Veterans who are diagnosed with PTSD or depression are up to 4.5 times more likely to also meet the criteria for a substance use disorder than veterans who don’t have PTSD and/or depression.4 In 2016, there were nearly 900,000 veterans who received VA disability for PTSD as a result of military service. More than 25% of veterans who have PTSD and receive treatment through the VA also have a co-occurring substance use disorder.4
VA Disability Eligibility & Requirements
There are specific requirements that you have to meet in order to be eligible for VA disability benefits. You must have served in the armed forces in some capacity, either as active duty, active duty for training, or inactive duty training, and have a current health issue that affects either your physical or mental health, including an injury, that is disabling and related to your service in some way.1 Your discharge cannot be characterized as dishonorable, as this can result in ineligibility for VA benefits. In addition, you must meet at least one of the following criteria:1
- You became sick or were injured during your military service, which is referred to as an in-service disability claim.
- You were sick or sustained an injury prior to your military service, and it was exacerbated by your military service, which is referred to as a preservice disability claim.
- You didn’t show any signs of a service-related disability until after your service was complete, which is referred to as a post-service disability claim.
Some examples of service-related disabilities that qualify for VA disability can include limb amputations, PTSD (with or without substance use), illnesses caused by exposure to toxic materials, disease related to being a prisoner of war (POW), or traumatic brain injuries (TBI). 4 When a veteran receives a certain rating of VA disability, qualified dependents are also covered. These qualified dependents may include your husband, wife, parent(s), and children. 9 You may be entitled to higher disability payments if you have qualified dependents, although there are certain requirements for people to be considered dependents.
Can You Lose VA Disability Benefits from Substance Abuse?
Substance abuse can impact your ability to obtain VA disability benefits. For example, a dishonorable discharge disqualifies you for VA benefits, including disability. A dishonorable discharge can result from being convicted of a felony crime while enlisted or participating in something known as willful misconduct.10 Willful misconduct refers to participating in an act knowing that it is wrong or not allowed while disregarding any consequences that are likely to occur as a result.11
Simply using alcohol or drugs while enlisted isn’t considered willful misconduct.11 However, substance use that leads to intoxication, excessive use of substances, long-term use that progresses to the point of addiction, use of a prescription drug that is taken in a way other than prescribed, or injuries that immediately and directly occur as a result of substance abuse are considered willful misconduct.12 You will not be able to receive VA disability benefits for any alcohol or drug abuse-related injuries that occur as a result of willful misconduct.
Other Ways You Can Lose VA Disability Benefits
There are other ways in which a veteran can lose their VA disability benefits. If you are incarcerated, your VA disability benefit amount may be reduced and your pension may be suspended until you are released.7, 14 Any of the following can result in the suspension of your VA disability benefits: 7, 13
- Committing fraud.
- If the character of your service is determined to involve undesirable or bad conduct.
- If you haven’t met minimum service requirements.
- If you receive a dishonorable discharge.
- If your disability improves and you are better able to function at work or in other life areas.
- If your disability is the result of the commission of a violent crime.
VA Disability Ratings
Service-connected disabilities are assigned a disability rating by the VA. The VA takes into account how severe your disability is based on medical documentation, a VA claim exam, and other sources of information.15 If you have more than one service-connected disability, your disability rating will be a combination of all applicable conditions. The maximum disability rating is 100%.15
The VA disability rating that you receive determines the monthly amount of VA disability that you receive. It can also determine if you are eligible for additional benefits through the VA, such as healthcare. A higher disability rating offers larger disability payments and more benefits. You can see the VA’s current monthly disability payments depending on your disability rating here.
VA Disability Ratings for Substance Abuses Issues
Since substance abuse alone isn’t a qualifying condition, it wouldn’t be assigned a VA disability rating.4 However, if you have another service-connected disability that has led to substance abuse issues, including drug abuse or alcoholism, both conditions will be used to calculate your disability rating.15 The disability rating can range from 0% to 100%, depending on the degree of impairment you are determined to have.
VA Disability Ratings for Other Veteran Issues
Veterans can become eligible for VA disability due to many physical or mental health conditions. The disability rating depends on how severe your condition is and how strongly it affects your ability to function in daily life. As a result, each case has to be estimated individually by the VA and medical or mental health professionals. Some common issues that can make you eligible for VA disability include:1, 4, 7
- Amputation of a limb.
- Breathing issues due to lung disease or condition.
- Cancer due to exposure to harmful chemicals or other substances.
- Long-term back pain leading to a diagnosed back disability.
- Severe loss of hearing
- PTSD, with or without substance use.
- Reduced range of motion, causing trouble moving one or more parts of your body.
- Scar tissue from a wound.
- Stomach ulcers.
- Traumatic brain injury (TBI).
In 2016, the most common VA disability rating for service-connected PTSD was 70%, and PTSD frequently occurs with substance abuse.4 However, the ratings vary greatly depending on one’s unique situation, and may range from an percentage between 0 and 100.
Will Substance Abuse Affect Other Disability or Benefit Claims?
If you are a disabled veteran, you may also be eligible for other disability or benefit programs. These can include Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplementary Security Income (SSI), emergency housing, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), among others. However, substance abuse could potentially have an impact on whether you are eligible for some of these programs.16
Similar to VA disability benefits, if your disability is directly caused by or significantly due to substance use, you are unlikely to be awarded disability benefits. The major question to ask is “Would I be disabled by any condition if I wasn’t drinking or using substances?”16 By this criteria, even though cirrhosis of the liver may be due to alcohol use, the disease would be present and disabling even if alcohol use is stopped, so it would be an approvable condition.16
Co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders wouldn’t necessarily make you ineligible for SSI/SSDI benefits, similar to VA disability.16 If you are homeless, you may apply for housing benefits such as emergency shelters, transitional housing, or supportive housing placements.17 Some housing programs may have substance use policies in place, so if you are on the premises with substances or under the influence, you may be asked to leave the premises or removed from the program. It’s worth noting that certain programs are designed for people with substance use disorders and can provide support and treatment to help participants stop using.17
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federally funded program to provide access to food. Veterans may be eligible depending upon the state requirements. Some states require recipients to be screened or drug tested if they have reason to think you are abusing substances, or if you have been convicted of a drug-related crime.18
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2021). Eligibility for VA disability benefits.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). VA disability compensation.
- Benefits.gov. Veterans alcohol and drug dependence rehabilitation program.
- Jankowski, R.L., Black, A.C., Lazar, C.M., Brummett, B.R., & Rosen, M.I. (2019). Consideration of substance use in compensation and pension examinations of veterans filing PTSD claims. PLOS One, 14(2).
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Substance use treatment for veterans.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2014). Claims for VA benefits and character of discharge.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Current VA disability compensation rates.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). PTSD treatment.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Add dependents to your VA disability benefits.
- Cornell Law School. Willful misconduct.
- Cornell Law School. 38 CFR § 3.301 — Line of duty and misconduct.
- Nolo. (2021). When willful misconduct in the military makes a veteran ineligible for benefits.
- Nolo. (2021). When can the VA terminate or lower my disability benefits?
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). Incarcerated veterans.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2020). About VA disability ratings.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Co-occurring substance use: Material to disability?
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2020). Housing and shelter.
- National Conference of State Legislatures. (2017). Drug testing for welfare participants and public assistance.