For Vets, Healthcare Gaps May Be More Deadly than Modern Warfare
On a brief jaunt last week, I met a fellow traveler -- a retired military officer whose career spanned various deployments to Germany, Panama and Vietnam. We discussed at length the tone of the nation in the 1960s when he was fighting an unseen enemy in an Asian jungle. Eventually, we talked about the sadness he felt when he returned to the USA only to suffer public taunts, jeers and an undeserved sense of disgrace from those who thought he should not have fought in an unpopular war. He said it was a time of heartbreak: losing friends in battle, losing dignity at home.
His words brought personal perspective to a recent study. Harvard researchers revealed that over 2,280 veterans died in 2008 due to lack of health insurance. They detailed that 1.46 million working-age vets lacked health coverage last year, thus increasing their death rate. Now that is truly a disgrace.
It's startling to realize so many noble vets met their demise not at the hands of an enemy, but at their exclusion from our healthcare system. Lack of insurance proved more fatal than the bullets they dodged in jungles and deserts.
According to information about the study, provided by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNPH), Harvard Medical School estimates 2,266 U.S. military veterans under the age of 65 died last year due to reduced access to health care. That number was juxtaposed against current wartime statistics: It is 14 times higher than the number of deaths suffered by American troops in Afghanistan during the same time period, and more than twice the number of those who have died since the war began in 2001.
In fact, the Harvard findings, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that being uninsured raises an individual's odds of dying by 40 percent among those ages 17 to 64 -- a demographic in which many deaths are highly preventable.
Analysts Weigh In
"Like other uninsured Americans, most uninsured vets are working people -- too poor to afford private coverage, but not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid or means-tested VA care," said Dr. Steffie Woolhandler, a professor at Harvard Medical School who carried out an analysis, released yesterday, of the Harvard study. "As a result, veterans go without the care they need every day in the U.S., and thousands die each year. That's a disgrace."
But what about VA care and VA hospitals -- don't they offer a care advantage to vets? Not for all, said the analysts. Even some combat veterans are unable to get VA care, according to Woolhandler. Veterans must pass a "means test" and are assigned a priority status according to income. So some working veterans, by virtue of their income, are classified in the lowest priority group and are not eligible for VA enrollment, said the professor.
The Harvard researchers pointedly noted that health care reform legislation now pending in the halls of Congress will do little to stem these grim statistics in the short run. "Those bills would do virtually nothing for the uninsured until 2013, and leave at least 17 million uninsured over the long run," said Dr. David Himmelstein, co-author of the analysis and an associate professor of medicine at Harvard. "We need a solution that works for all veterans, and for all Americans." In his opinion: single-payer national health insurance.
Thank a Vet
The healthcare reform battle wages on. And I suppose you could say we are all soldiers in the fight for our collective national health. Being armed with information found in the Harvard study and the PNPH analysis can help us in forming the best battle plan and staking out the most advantageous position.
On this Veterans Day, take time to thank a vet for "stepping up" on our behalf. Regardless of your political leanings, appreciate the people who put their lives on the line. We can't give them back their friends lost in battle, or those lost to gaps in healthcare access. But we can do a lot to assure their human dignity. And guess what: It doesn't take legislation to get it done.