Vets return, but not always with healthcare
As the nation honors its veterans Thursday, some advocates say too many are falling through the cracks.
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After inquiries from reporters, the VA in Washington said that if Wilf had been enrolled in the VA system, he would have been eligible for treatment for noncombat problems because he had just returned from combat duty. But he would have to pay for a percentage of the cost if he were able, and he would not be a priority case. "Part of the problem is the way the law reads. It says it's mandatory to provide care for a condition possibly related to service, but doesn't really address treatment of an unrelated condition," says Gary Baker, head of the Eligibility Center at the VA.Skip to next paragraph
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Wilf has since filled out the application to enroll but is still waiting for it to be processed. In the meantime, the hospital where he was treated has forgiven most of the $54,000 bill because he was technically indigent. But he still has another $24,000 in related bills to pay.
Wilf was active duty, but some returning troops in the National Guard and Reserves have also found themselves without healthcare. When they were activated, they were eligible for Tricare, the Defense Department's health-insurance program, but they lost coverage when they returned home.
Last summer, however, Congress voted to extend Tricare coverage for 180 days after deactivation. And last month, it voted to extend the coverage again, this time allowing Guard and Reserve troops to receive a year of Tricare coverage for every 90 consecutive days they serve.
Mr. Rieckhoff of Operation Truth lauds Congress for the move, but he contends it's still not enough. He points to his own situation. He was on active duty and served as an infantry platoon leader in central Baghdad for 11 months. But now he finds himself in a job with no insurance. He was also told that the VA would treat only service-related injuries.
"The ironic part is that I'm drilling in the National Guard. It's not like I'm completely out of the military," he says.
A study done at Harvard University has found that almost 1.7 million veterans of all wars lack health insurance, an increase of 13 percent since 2000. More than one in three vets under the age of 25, like Wilf, have no health insurance.
"It's particularly offensive to send people off to war and not take care of them when they come home," says Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a professor at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of the study.
The VA contends the number of veterans without healthcare coverage is far smaller. Ms. Church says 60 percent of those uninsured veterans would be eligible for care if they enrolled in the VA. The study's authors dispute that, noting that many have incomes higher than $26,000, live in areas where there are no VA services, or were unable to receive care due to long waiting lists.
Church charges that the study's authors are using the issue of uninsured vets to further a political agenda of creating a national health-insurance system.
Veteran activists discount that. "This is not a political issue; it's a soldier issue," says Steve Robinson of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
A Gulf War veteran, he retired from active duty in October 2001, applied for benefits in 2002, and has yet to be enrolled in the VA healthcare system. "What happens in Washington is that these important things get turned into political footballs to get kicked around," he says. "Then the issue doesn't get the attention it deserves."