Returning veterans face strapped VA health care system

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(Host) A national crisis in health care for U.S. veterans has been felt at the Veterans Affairs Center in White River Junction. Many veterans of past wars are applying for the first time, and some are facing long waits and stiffer standards for eligibility.

Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan will get top priority when they return, so the situation could get worse, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) In the waiting room at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, several dozen older vets are waiting to claim the health benefits they think they have coming.

Some may be in for a surprise. A new federal rule limits the amount a new applicant can make to qualify for Veterans health care. The limit is around $26,000 annually for a single person.

(Cheryl Stancil) “Probably about eight or ten [patients] this week that I’ve done myself that aren’t going to be eligible to use the VA because of income. They’re not happy, not very happy about it at all.”

(Keese) Cheryl Stancil is a VA eligibility clerk. She says the White River VA is one of the best, for those who can get access. It’s the others that concern her:

(Stancil) “The guys come in, they think they’re going to be taken care of for the rest of their lives because they served their country. And that’s not happening because of their income. If they’re married, receiving social security, and either one of them is receiving a pension, unless their medical expenses are very high, they’re going to be over.”

(Keese) Stancil says the income cap is waived for combat veterans and those whose problems are related to their military service. It also doesn’t apply to people already in the system. Among new applicants from past wars who do qualify, there’s a lengthy wait for a first appointment. Leonard Doscinski is an advocate for the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the Vermont VA:

(Doscinski) “A veteran right now coming in for health care, first time he’s applying for health care, fills out the necessary form. They check and he’s going to wait or she’s going to wait six months to a year before they get to see that first doctor.”

(Keese) In an emergency, a veteran in need will be seen immediately. Veterans who are already being treated by an outside doctor are given low priority, even if the cost of medicine or treatment has become difficult to meet.

Most observers say the problem is increased demand for VA services, coupled with insufficient federal funding. The system serves veterans from Vermont and part of New Hampshire as well as Canada. The number of patients has grown by 54% since 1998.

Doscinski says many World War II vets, and even Vietnam vets, have reached an age where they need more care. Many who never asked for benefits before are victims of the recent economic downturn.

(Doscinski) “Sixty years later, these guys are older, they’ve lost their health insurance from the company they’ve been working for, they lost their retirement or they’re living on a fixed income. Health is going down hill, they’re getting hit with medication costs and they come in and want help.”

(Keese) For the last several years federal allotments for veterans have increased by a few percent each year, while costs for health care and prescriptions have skyrocketed. This year, President Bush has asked for a 7.5% increase in the 2004 VA budget. In Vermont the increase may not even be enough to maintain the status quo, especially with service men and women returning from the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Dr. Arthur Sauvigne, the chief of staff at the VA hospital says those veterans will be eligible for full medical benefits for two years after their return. But he says it’s not going to be easy.

(Sauvigne) “It’s going to stress the system, the system is running at capacity.”

(Keese) Sauvigne believes Vermont could become a testing ground for new solutions, like partnering with private providers and with Medicare for veterans who are eligible for both. For now he says, they’re doing the best they can with the resources available.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in White River Junction.

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