By Katie Horneffer, Intern, Care4Carolina
Last week, the U.S. withdrew the last of its troops from Afghanistan, bringing an end to the 20-year war. This week, our country will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks. These events provide a sobering reminder of the sacrifices that America’s veterans have made in the name of our freedom. As the last of our troops return from our country’s longest war, they will need access to health insurance to address any physical or mental health concerns. Yet in North Carolina, a state with one of the largest veteran populations, thousands of veterans are unable to access the healthcare they need because our state has not closed its health insurance coverage gap.
Our state has the fifth highest uninsured veteran population in the country. There are an estimated 12,000 veterans that would gain access to affordable health insurance if North Carolina closed its coverage gap.
Younger veterans with more recent military service—like those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq—are more likely to fall into the coverage gap. In fact, veterans ages 19-24 are nearly four times as likely as veterans ages 55-64 to be uninsured. Younger veterans may also be at higher risk of severe mental health problems, including suicide. Yet despite their need for health services, many younger veterans are not eligible for care through the VA system due to requirements around service duration and other factors.
It’s a common misconception that all veterans automatically are eligible to receive comprehensive care through the VA system. In reality, only 40% of all veterans are enrolled in the VA system. Eligibility depends on veteran status, service duration, service-related disabilities, income level, and other factors. This means that many of the people who risked their lives for our country are left without access to affordable health insurance.
As one might imagine, the demands of military service can lead to a number of physical and mental health concerns. Veterans, especially low-income veterans, face high rates of chronic health conditions, disability, severe mental illness like post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries, and substance use disorder. When veterans do not have access to affordable health insurance, it can be extremely difficult for them to access the care that they need to manage their own health. About 41% of uninsured veterans have unmet medical needs, and 34% have reported delaying needed healthcare due to cost concerns. And sadly, veterans with serious health conditions—those who would benefit the most from regular care— are even more likely to skip needed care due to financial concerns.
But closing the coverage gap can help. Research shows that states that have closed their coverage gap have lower rates of uninsured veterans compared to those that haven’t. In these states, veterans are much more likely to have regular access to a doctor. This means they are able to get important preventive care, like cancer screenings and influenza vaccinations. And they can better manage chronic health conditions ranging from diabetes to high blood pressure to mental health concerns. Isn’t this the least we can do for those who put their lives on the line for our country?
Closing the coverage gap would actually improve healthcare for all veterans, not just those who are uninsured. Particularly in rural areas, VA hospitals and clinics can be a long distance away. Closing the coverage gap would allow more veterans to access local providers outside of the VA system, so that they didn’t have to travel so far for services. This can also help reduce the burden on the VA system, which sometimes leaves veterans to face long wait times for care.
North Carolina’s veterans have sacrificed so much for us—now it’s time that we give back to them. In honor of all those who have served our country, let’s take action now to close the health insurance coverage gap.