The Veterans Administration Medical Center wants to register people who have VA medical benefits so it can better plan for the future. But letters saying that anyone who doesn't enroll by Oct. 1 will be forever ineligible have been circulated, and that is not true.

"We have established a system of enrollment," said Ted Baxter, a spokesman for the VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City. "But it's not structured so that if you're not enrolled there's a threat of losing eligibility. There have been rumors and misinformation."Baxter said the rumors started with information posted on the Internet. That was apparently downloaded, copied and circulated broadly, causing a small panic among people who thought they were going to lose benefits. It also made some people mad at the government, because the letter said that the VA was not allowed to inform veterans they would lose their benefits if they didn't go to their nearest VA and enroll.

Like most rumors, it carried a grain of truth. Veterans who have received VA health-care services since Oct. 1, 1996, will automatically be enrolled, as the letter said. But that's where the truth stopped, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There have been changes in the delivery of health care at the VA. But while veterans must be enrolled to receive care, those who have not applied for enrollment by the stated date will not lose eligibility for health care.

"You can apply and be enrolled at the time you need VA health care," Baxter said. "If we haven't seen you for the past two years, we are asking you to come in and enroll this year so for planning purposes we'll have a better idea of the number we'll be serving in the future.

"But it's definitely not a suggestion that if you choose not to enroll you'll be denied care."

Baxter said the person who originated the bad information on the Internet has publicly apologized and tried to set the record straight. But the letters that have been sent out as a result have taken on a life of their own.

Veteran Rick Tracy was outraged when he received a copy of the letter from a friend. He said he's spent the past few weeks trying to ensure that everyone he knows who qualifies for health care at the VA is informed. He was both relieved, he said, and irritated that the letter was a "scary, meaningless threat."

Applications for enrollment will be placed in one of seven priority groups, which were defined by Congress. Based on the priority assigned, how many veterans request enrollment and funds available for VA health care, the administration will decide how many veterans it can serve. Veterans will be notified by mail starting this spring whether their application for enrollment was accepted.

After Oct. 1, some veterans may still be treated without being enrolled, including veterans with service-related disabilities who can be treated for those disabilities, and veterans who were discharged or released from active duty for a disability received or aggravated while on active duty. They can receive treatment for that disability within the first 12 months of discharge.

Veterans classified as being service-disabled with a rating of 50 percent or higher will continue to be eligible for VA health-care services without application for enrollment, although the VA would still like to enroll them to get a count.

Those who are enrolled can receive treatment at any of the VA's 1,100-plus service sites. For more information about enrollment, call 584-2585 or visit the Web site at (http://www.va.org/health/elig).