About 1.8M Veterans Are Uninsured, Lack Access To VA Hospitals

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Lawmakers on Wednesday at a hearing of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs discussed a proposal to lift a ban on Department of Veterans Affairs health benefits for higher-income veterans who have no service-related disabilities in response to a study that found 1.8 million veterans younger than age 65 lack health insurance or access to care at VA facilities, the Washington Post reports.

The ban applies to Priority 8 veterans -- those who have annual incomes that exceed 80% of the median income where they live and have no service-related disabilities (Lee, Washington Post, 6/21). The Bush administration implemented the ban in 2003 because of a need to maintain VA health benefits for an increased population of veterans (CQ HealthBeat, 6/20).

At the hearing, Stephanie Woolhandler of Harvard University presented the study, for which researchers examined data from the Current Population Survey administered by the Census Bureau and the National Health Interview Survey administered by HHS. Researchers considered veterans uninsured when they said they lacked health insurance or access to care at VA facilities. The study found that 12.7% of veterans younger than age 65 were uninsured in 2004, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 9.9% in 2000 (Washington Post, 6/21). In addition, the study found that 26.5% of uninsured veterans failed to obtain necessary health care because of cost issues and that 31% delayed such care because of cost issues (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 6/20).

Woolhandler recommended that Priority 8 veterans receive VA health benefits. According to Woolhandler, about half of the 1.8 million uninsured veterans are considered Priority 8, and the remainder might qualify for VA health benefits but lack access to care because they do not live near department facilities (Washington Post, 6/21).

Possible Congressional Action

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Committee chair Bob Filner (D-Calif.) said that he plans to introduce legislation to lift the ban on VA health benefits for Priority 8 veterans. Filner said, "I think there is sufficient money for category 8. If the committee and if the Congress approves, I think we could move ahead with the resources that we've put in with the budget."

However, Michael Kussman, undersecretary for health at VA, said, "We believe the current restriction on enrollment of new Priority 8 veterans is necessary to maintain the timelines and quality of health care we provide to currently enrolled veterans." In addition, Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), ranking member of the committee, said that lawmakers should study the potential effects of removal of the ban on demand for care at VA facilities, adding that the proposal "will open the gates and the surge will come in."

Veteran organizations said that Priority 8 veterans are legally entitled to VA health benefits. John Rowan, president of Vietnam Veterans of America, said, "We strongly urge that you truly honor the commitment that we as a nation have made" (CQ HealthBeat, 6/20).

Washington State

In related news, the AP/Spokane Spokesman-Review on Wednesday examined how Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, recently sent a letter to VA Secretary Jim Nicholson that asked for information related to reported problems with two psychiatric wards at department hospitals in Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. Murray also recently flew to Seattle to tour the VA hospitals (Johnson, AP/Spokane Spokesman-Review, 6/20).

Broadcast Coverage

Several broadcast programs recently reported or are scheduled to report on issues related to mental health care for veterans. Summaries appear below.

Reprinted with permission from kaisernetwork.org. Youcan view the entire Kaiser DailyHealth Policy Report, search the archives, and sign up for email deliveryat kaisernetwork.org/email. The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report is published for kaisernetwork.org, afree service of The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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