December 30, 2013

FROM THE STATE HOUSE: Nearly half of Maine veterans don’t qualify for health care through VA

Rep. Ann Dorney and Rep. Stanley Short Jr.

Not having access to health care is a problem our returning veterans shouldn’t encounter, but we’ve heard stories that cause us great concern.

A young veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq begins struggling with school and work months after his return to Maine because of post-traumatic stress, but lacks insurance for counseling from a local provider. A Desert Storm veteran will lose MaineCare coverage next month and worries how he will move ahead without the security of health care coverage.

When the Legislature convenes next month, Maine will have another opportunity to expand health care to our friends and neighbors, including 25,000 individuals who currently have MaineCare and will lose it on Jan. 1 because we have not accepted the federal dollars to expand eligibility. In addition, 45,000 Mainers, including nearly 3,000 veterans, would gain access to coverage if we choose to expand eligibility.

Contrary to popular belief, not all veterans qualify for comprehensive health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Many elements, including duty status, income and service-related disabilities, go into determining eligibility for VA services.

Even veterans who qualify for services face barriers to care. In our large and rural state, many veterans live far away from the closest VA facility or have difficulty with transportation. Some work low-wage jobs and struggle with homelessness. Others are unaware they are eligible. And some are daunted by a complex process.

Nationally, of the 2.3 million veterans who deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq by the end of March 2011, only 1.3 million were eligible for VA health care services, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. Even more disturbing is that only half of those eligible had accessed VA services.

A good number of demanding jobs in Maine do not provide health insurance. So even though workers may be on their feet all day at a cash register, rushing around serving restaurant patrons, building homes, tending to the elderly or hauling lobster pots, they do not have the security of health care coverage. Because Maine hasn’t accepted the federal offer to expand health care coverage, 25,000 Mainers who have jobs such as these will lose the coverage they now have, even if they have serious and chronic illnesses.

For these individuals, an unexpected illness or injury can mean financial disaster. Overwhelming medical bills are the leading cause of bankruptcies in the United States, according to a recent Harvard study.

Ensuring health care coverage for all people helps keep the cost of health care down for everyone. Patients who lack coverage often delay seeing a doctor until their condition becomes serious — and more difficult and expensive to treat. We could avoid many emergency room visits and charity care cases — which totaled $450 million last year — if Maine accepts the federal dollars to expand health care in the state.

We believe that improving access to health care for all people is a cause worth investing in, but particularly so for veterans. Health care expansion would provide veterans of limited means with preventative care, treatment for chronic conditions and greater continuity of care. Inadequate health care coverage can make the transition back to civilian life much harder. Our veterans served to protect us, our nation and our state. We have an obligation to serve and protect them in return.

Rep. Ann Dorney, D-Norridgewock, is a practicing family physician who represents Norridgewock, Solon and Madison. Rep. Stanley Short Jr., D-Pittsfield, is a retired certified pipe welder and labor representative who represents Clinton, Detroit and Pittsfield.
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