May 30, 2012 at 8:25 AM ET
More than 1.3 million working-age veterans don’t have health insurance and are failing to take advantage of health care available through Veterans Affairs, a new study finds.
Researchers at the Urban Institute used census data to estimate health insurance coverage for veterans aged 19 to 64.
While veterans are more likely to have health insurance than the general population, about 1 in 10 of the nearly 12.5 million veterans under age 65 do not have health coverage either through the VA or other insurers.
The rates of uninsurance appear to be especially high for veterans under age 35.
“They are disproportionately younger, and they appear to have served more recently,” said Genevieve Kenney, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute and co-author of the report.
Kenney said the uninsured veterans also tended to have lower incomes and lower levels of education and were less likely to be full-time workers than the veterans with health coverage.
Contrary to popular belief, veterans are not automatically eligible for health care coverage once they leave the military. Jacob Gadd, deputy director for health care with the American Legion, said health coverage is generally provided to the poorest and the most badly injured of those who have served.
For example, combat veterans are eligible for five years of free medical care for any service-related issues. Other veterans can get at least some coverage for injuries if they can prove they are related to their service.
In addition, veterans who have very little income or are in financial distress can qualify to receive care through Veterans Affairs medical centers. (The VA provides an overview of who is eligible.)
Gadd said many veterans don’t appear to be aware of what benefits are available to them, especially if they have injuries from their time in service.
American Legion research has shown that only about half of military members who have returned home from deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan have enrolled in the VA for health care.
“We are worried about the other half, whether they know if benefits are available to them,” Gadd said.
Gadd said some veterans may be choosing not to seek out health care, especially if they have post-traumatic stress or other conditions they fear could carry a stigma.
There are clear costs to not having health insurance. Kenney, of the Urban Institute, said separate research has shown that high numbers of uninsured veterans have health issues that are not being addressed.
About one-third of uninsured veterans said they were delaying care due to cost, the researcher found.
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