ANTHONY BROOKS, host:
One of every eight American military veterans under age 65 does not have basic health insurance or access to a VA hospital. That's 1.8 million vets in all, according to a new study from the Harvard Medical School.
The study was the focus of a House committee hearing yesterday in Washington, and comes at a time of increasing concern about medical and mental health care for the nation's veterans during wartime.
Joining us now to discuss the study is Paul Rieckoff, executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. And, Paul, welcome.
Mr. PAUL RIECKOFF (Executive Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America): Thank you very much.
BROOKS: What's your response to the study?
Mr. RIECKOFF: It doesn't really surprise me. I think we're really on the verge of a crisis here, and this report should be another indication of the problems that we face ahead.
BROOKS: Can you talk about specific examples? What are you seeing among your membership? What are you hearing from them about this challenge?
Mr. RIECKOFF: Well, I think the biggest challenge we see is a failure to deal with mental health issues. A significant percentage of our members are National Guardsmen and Reservists who come home to fulltime jobs. Most VA's aren't open in the evenings. They're not open on weekends. If you're dealing with a drug or alcohol issue, the VA won't treat you if you're drunk or high. They're also dealing with new types of injuries, like traumatic brain injury, which many experts are calling the signature wound of the war.
The VA has been under funded and neglected for, I would argue, decades. And the new Congress has ramped up funding in the last few months, but they've got a lot of catching up to do. There's a flood of almost two million veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's really pushing it at all levels.
BROOKS: We mentioned the House committee yesterday listening to a presentation about this Harvard study. And I gather that the focus was on whether to open VA hospitals to more veterans, specifically to those perhaps with no service-related disabilities. Is that a good idea, given the pressure that the VA health system is already under?
Mr. RIECKOFF: I think it's something we should do. We shouldn't be rationing care. And I think, really, that's what this has come down to. There are about 1.8 million uninsured veterans. Some are classified as priority eight, which means they have no service-connected disability or they have earnings over about the 80 percent median income of where they live. The other half may just be out of reach from a VA facility, especially in the rural areas, and I think we need to figure out creatively how to serve them.
What started to develop is a larger fight over socialized healthcare, or nationalized healthcare. Veterans have been kind of caught in the middle here. So you see the Republicans and Democrats battle back and forth, using veterans for a larger battle about whether or not to expand health care to Americans nationally.
BROOKS: So what needs to happen? I mean, is this strictly, in your view, about money, or is it about making the VA health system work more efficiently?
Mr. RIECKOFF: I think it's a combination of both. Allowing these 1.8 million veterans would add significantly to the VA's case load and their budget. Estimates are somewhere between 500 million to about $3 billion annually. So it begs the larger question, I mean, what are our veterans worth? We're facing a tough war, recruiting numbers are down, retention numbers in the active duty military are struggling.
And if we're going to ensure that good people join our military and stay in our military, they've got to know that when they get out and they become veterans, they're going to get taken care of, and they're not going to be nickeled and dimed. If you suffer a wound or you come home with injury, it's going to be taken care of.
BROOKS: Paul Rieckoff, thanks very much.
Mr. RIECKOFF: Thank you, sir.
BROOKS: That's Paul Rieckoff, who heads Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, talking about a new study from Harvard on veterans' health care.
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