Guest Commentary

Tom Bell and Herb Kuhn: Veterans deserve better access to health care


The recently publicized troubles within the Veterans Affairs health care system are disturbing to all Americans. They should be — the failure to provide timely, effective medical services to our nation’s veterans is unconscionable.

Our veterans are the embodiment of sacrifice and the legacy of the enduring cost of our freedoms. It’s because of their outsized sacrifice that the news of long waiting times in many parts of the country to access excellent care at a veterans’ hospital or clinic is so troubling. But at least these veterans have some ability to access care.

What is largely unknown is that many veterans and their families — including a significant number in Kansas and Missouri — don’t have access to care at all.

Many individuals who did not receive care from the VA or are not eligible would have used the private health care system if they had health insurance.

It makes perfect sense — no long waits and care provided close to home for those where a VA facility is a long drive away.

But for many, a local access point is problematic. One in 10 of the nation’s non-elderly veterans has no health insurance and does not use VA services — that’s 1.3 million veterans. Nearly 950,000 of their family members also lack coverage.

That’s because nearly half of uninsured veterans have incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty level — $26,951 for a family of three. At this level, veterans would be eligible for coverage under Medicaid as states expand their programs.

In fact, if all states would expand Medicaid, nearly half of the nation’s uninsured veterans would have access to affordable health coverage.

Let’s look at the situation in Kansas and Missouri — states that have rejected Medicaid expansion for the last two years. Missouri has 30,000 non-elderly veterans and 22,000 of their family members who are uninsured. Kansas has 15,000 veterans and 10,000 family members without health insurance.

Using the national percentage of 48.8 percent of veterans with incomes below the poverty level, the estimated number of Kansas and Missouri veterans and family members who would be eligible for Medicaid coverage under expansion would be 37,576.

Veterans’ health care needs are very real. The research finds that more than 40 percent of uninsured veterans report unmet or delayed health care needs. Nearly 55 percent of veterans’ families report similar needs. Both veterans and their families report they have delayed seeking care because of the costs they would incur as uninsured individuals.

It’s one thing to wait in a long line. It’s another altogether when you can’t get access to the line. Unfortunately, this is happening in Kansas and Missouri. VA and federal lawmakers are working hard to reduce the wait times at VA facilities. That’s their job.

It’s the job of elected state officials to help the nearly 40,000 veterans and their family members gain access to that line. That could easily be done by expanding coverage and access to care for our veterans and for thousands of other hard-working individuals.

Citizens who have put their lives on the line to serve their country deserve our full support when they return home. Their families also have sacrificed. Both groups deserve our respect and support, which includes access to the best medical care we can provide them — whether in the VA system or in the private sector.

All of us, including lawmakers in Kansas and Missouri, should be saluting our veterans by taking advantage of opportunities to provide them with access to health care services.

Tom Bell, of Topeka, is president and CEO of the Kansas Hospital Association. Herb Kuhn, of Jefferson City, is president and CEO of the Missouri Hospital Association.