AJA: 1.2m Veterans Lack Health Insurance



Study: Over 1.2 Million Veterans Lack Health Insurance

Study says vets earned too much for VA benefits; many live in states refusing ACA funding to expand Medicaid.

By Marisa Taylor, November 25 2014.

A study published in The Lancet  sheds light on a little-discussed issue affecting U.S. military veterans — a lack of health insurance coverage.

Most people assume that veterans automatically receive health care coverage through the Veterans Health Administration, but that’s actually not the case, according to the authors of the study published Sunday, Dr. Dave A. Chokshi of NYU Langone Medical Center and Dr. Benjamin Sommers of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Using numbers from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, they determined that more than 1.2 million veterans lacked health insurance in 2012, the latest year for which data is available, in line with previous studies that came to similar conclusions. In fact, just 8.9 million out of the 22 million veterans in the U.S. are enrolled in VA health benefits, which are reserved for those who have been disabled through military service or are very low-income. Other vets tend to obtain insurance on the private market.

The researchers found that most uninsured veterans lived in states that had decided not to accept the Affordable Care Act’s federal funding to expand Medicaid, the government’s insurance program for low-income people.

For example, they determined that there were 126,000 uninsured military veterans living in Texas, 95,000 in Florida, 54,000 in North Carolina and 53,000 in Georgia. None of those states, all with Republican governors, are expanding their Medicaid coverage, programs to cover people living at or below 138 percent of the federal poverty line, or a combined income of just under $33,000 for a four-person household.

Click here for statistics on uninsured veterans

But the authors also determined that 87 percent of currently uninsured veterans are probably eligible for coverage through Medicaid expansion, through subsidized plans offered on the ACA’s insurance marketplaces or through the VA.

“With the introduction of the ACA, universal coverage for veterans could be an achievable goal, albeit one that requires renewed commitment and policy attention,” the authors wrote.

“To call for expanded coverage might seem ill-timed when the VA health system is struggling to keep pace with demand. Yet, paradoxically, the present crisis could provide an opportunity to address these related access problems,” they said.

While the number of uninsured Americans has decreased by 26 percent by the close of the first-open enrollment season for the ACA’s insurance exchanges, which began in October 2013, the Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t indicated how many veterans were among the 7.1 million people who enrolled in coverage through the marketplaces in that time.

But previous studies have suggested that obtaining health insurance is a problem for veterans. For example, a 2007 study conducted at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System found that many veterans didn’t know they were eligible for VA care. The researchers also said that those vets who did use the VA for all their health care needs tended to be from lower-income, less educated and minority populations.

Genevieve Kenney, co-director of the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center and an expert on Medicaid, confirmed that vets without health insurance resemble their civilian counterparts — they tend to be younger, lower-income and have lower levels of education.

“So the Affordable Care Act has the potential to address some of the holes for veterans” through Medicaid expansion and the insurance exchanges, she said.

However, Kenney, who co-authored a study about the Medicaid eligibility of uninsured veterans, pointed out that fewer vets have gone without insurance than civilian adults, and that is because of the VA.

“It [the VA] does provide coverage and care to millions of other veterans who don’t have other options,” she said.

Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a professor of public health at the CUNY School of Public Health at Hunter College, said she began to treat veterans who didn’t have insurance coverage during the decades she spent working as a primary-care physician at the Cambridge Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, in MassachusettsLike most doctors, she assumed they were covered through the VA. “I said, ‘Why don’t we call the VA?’ and they’d say ‘No, no, you’re not eligible,’” she told Al Jazeera.

“They were mostly these lower-income, low- to middle-income working people whose incomes were too high to qualify for [VA-covered health insurance for the poor], but they still couldn’t afford private health insurance,” she said.

Woolhandler, who has been a vocal advocate for adopting a single-payer health insurance program in the United States, says that hundreds of thousands of veterans will remain without coverage across the board because the ACA “doesn’t get us to universal coverage.”

“You can go serve your country — you can even be a combat veteran — but you can come home and be uninsured,” she said.

See Marisa Taylor, Study: Over 1.2 Million Veterans Lack Health Insurance, Al Jazeera America, November 25 2014.

(Emphasis added, graphics removed)