House Veterans' Affairs Committee Holds Hearing on Health Care Equity for All Veterans
The House of Representatives Committee on Veterans' Affairs, led by Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA), today held a hearing on Priority Group 8 veterans. The hearing focused on the impact of the decision on veterans and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system to ban enrollment of priority 8 veterans. The committee also discussed whether the VA should continue this enrollment ban and the effect of potentially bringing Priority Group 8 veterans back into the VA health care system. Chairman Filner requested a report from the VA to detail the cost, including infrastructure and employee needs, for the VA to provide heath care to Priority Group 8 veterans.
The passage of the Veterans Health Care Eligibility Reform Act of 1996 required the VA to establish priority categories and operate a patient enrollment system to manage access to VA health care if sufficient resources were not available to serve all veterans seeking care. Originally there were seven Priority Groups, however, the Department of Veterans Affairs Health Care Programs Enhancement Act of 2001 required the VA to establish Priority Group 8. Priority Group 8 veterans fall above the income threshold established by the VA and above the geographic income threshold established by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Veterans in Priority Group 8 do not have service-connected disabilities. The administration, in January 2003, banned the enrollment of new Priority 8 veterans, a policy it has kept in place since.
"Taking care of veterans is a continued cost of war," said Chairman Filner. "It is unacceptable to ration care for our veterans. Any planned military surge must be accompanied by a surge for health care for veterans. We must be prepared to serve those that have served us - and we are not prepared at this time."
The witnesses delivering testimony before the Committee included Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School; Carl Blake, national legislative director of Paralyzed Veterans of America; Adrian Atizado, assistant national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans; Peter S. Gaytan, director of the Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission for The American Legion; John Rowan, national president for Vietnam Veterans of America; and the Honorable Dr. Michael J. Kussman, undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Witness Dr. Stephanie Woolhandler testified that in 2004, 1.8 million military veterans neither had health insurance nor received ongoing care at VA facilities. This number has increased by 290,000 since 2000. "A disturbingly high number of uninsured veterans reported needing medical care and not being able to get it within the past year," stated Dr. Woolhandler. "More than a quarter of uninsured veterans failed to get needed care due to costs. Among uninsured veterans, 44.1% had not seen a doctor or nurse within the past year." Dr. Woolhandler's testimony was based on analyses of multiple years of data from two annual national surveys: The Current Population Survey and the National Health Interview Survey.
Witness John Rowan commented that "combat zones can expose servicemembers to long-term health risks that are not immediately diagnosed. When veterans are not eligible for enrollment in the VA health care system, long-term health is negatively impacted if the veteran does not have access to primary health care. Veterans with Agent Orange exposure or traumatic brain injury, for example, may not have immediate symptoms and be classified as Priority Group 8 veterans. Once symptoms appear, these veterans are subject to delays when they file claims and are still without access to VA health care. There is evidence that once they are in the system, these Category 8 veterans may raise up in priority level and qualify for service-connected care."
"This ban on Priority Group 8 veterans was meant to be temporary," said Chairman Filner. "Dr. Kussman agreed to provide a report to the Committee that will detail the needs of the Department to ensure access and quality of care for Priority 8 veterans, including the VA's estimates as to necessary facility and infrastructure improvements and increased staffing levels. It is time our nation provides the option for VA health care to all of our veterans for their contributions to our country."