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U.S. falls short on debt to military vets

By Jonathan D. Walker, M.D.
The Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Ind.), May 27, 2012

Here is something worth remembering as we celebrate Memorial Day: The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that every 80 minutes a veteran takes his or her own life. The problem is so serious that although only 1 percent of Americans have served in the military, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States. And the news is filled with stories about how the VA is struggling to get the funding it needs to address the problem.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Public Health indicated that almost 2 million veterans are uninsured, along with almost 4 million of their family members, and a Harvard study estimated that more than 2,200 veterans died in 2008 due to lack of insurance. You may have thought that veterans can automatically be treated at a veterans’ hospital, but this is not the case. Veterans who have a service-connected injury can get care, but uninsured veterans face a “means test” based on their income. The test determines their priority level for care and how much they have to pay. And if the system doesn’t have enough money, it can stop enrolling veterans if they fail the means test – as happened from 2003 to 2009.

But even if the VA were able to fully cover every veteran, it would still leave a lot of veterans without care because they do not live near a VA hospital. And even if they live near a hospital, they still may need to drive far away to get services that aren’t available locally; for instance, there are veterans in Fort Wayne who have to go to Indianapolis for treatment. There are laws that make it illegal for an insurance company to force patients to drive an excessive distance to stay in their network, yet we think nothing of making veterans drive long distances simply to get the care to which they are entitled.

Rick Unger, a writer at Forbes Magazine, points out that we make a deal with our veterans: They put their lives on the line when we send them off to fight our wars, and in return we promise to take care of them when they come back. Although the men and women in uniform deliver on their promise on a daily basis, we very much do not. When pollsters try to identify the issues that are important to us, veterans’ health care doesn’t even make the list. Non-profit organizations, such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, try to fill the gap created by our national lack of concern, but their resources are also limited. Unger says it best: “You and I are, at the end of the day, a bunch of deal-breaking, contract-breaching welchers who don’t care enough about our promises to those who would die for us to view this as a concern worthy of making a pollster’s list.” And now one of our veterans chooses suicide every 80 minutes.

It is totally understandable that people want smaller government and lower taxes, but we should still be willing to do whatever it takes to provide these men and women with the resources they need to stay physically and mentally healthy. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has advocated providing veterans a card that would allow them treatment at any health care facility so they would never have to worry about access to care. Only 1 percent of us serve in the military. Why can’t the rest of us take care of them properly?

Dr. Jonathan D. Walker is an assistant clinical professor at Indiana University School of Medicine in Fort Wayne. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette.

http://www.journalgazette.net/article/20120527/EDIT05/305279968/1147/EDIT07