Compass: Uninsured Alaska vets need health care, not another study

By BYRON MALLOTTFebruary 23, 2014 

We don't thank our veterans by denying them access to medical care. Although most can rely on the Veterans Administration for their health care, not every veteran is eligible. Many have to turn elsewhere. Gov. Sean Parnell's decision to reject federal funds for Medicaid expansion in Alaska denies affordable health coverage for a significant number of veterans.

That is no way to treat someone who served our country.

That is no way to say "thank you" for their service.

Alaskans need to think about those veterans who, without Medicaid expansion in Alaska, will continue to live without health coverage. They will continue to be charity cases for hospitals and other health care providers. These veterans deserve better. We can do better.

There are an estimated 2,400 veterans in Alaska who are not eligible for Veterans Administration care, who don't get health insurance at work or who cannot afford to buy their own coverage. Many of these former members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard would be eligible for coverage if Gov. Parnell had chosen to accept federal funds for Medicaid expansion in Alaska.

A report by the nonpartisan, nonprofit Urban Institute, which conducts research and analyzes programs nationwide, estimated that as many as 250,000 veterans are without health insurance because they live in states that have rejected the federally funded expansion of their Medicaid programs. Unfortunately, Alaska is on that list.

Fortunately for almost 200,000 veterans nationwide, they live in states that have accepted the new income limits for Medicaid.

Our veterans should not be treated as collateral damage in the political wars between the State of Alaska and the federal government. Nor should they be told the state needs more time to study the problem of uninsured Alaskans, as Gov. Parnell has directed his Health and Social Services Department to do.

All of our veterans deserve an answer, they deserve our support, and they deserve good health insurance.

No doubt many Alaskans just assume the nation's 12.5 million non-elderly veterans receive health benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but that's not true. The reality is that only two-thirds of those veterans are eligible for health care through Veterans Affairs. Nationwide, more than 1 million veterans lack any form of health care coverage. It's embarrassing that Alaska, home to so many veterans, is part of that number.

Many of those uninsured veterans could qualify under Medicaid expansion. They make too much for the Medicaid basic income limitation, but either not enough to afford a monthly private insurance premium on their own or they work for an employer that does not provide affordable group coverage.

Whatever the reason, they and their spouses could be eligible for assistance under the nation's Affordable Care Act, but only if they live in state that signed up to expand Medicaid coverage to the working poor and others.

The governor made the wrong decision when he declined the Medicaid expansion. Alaska cannot leave thousands of veterans and tens of thousands of other Alaskans without the health coverage they need and deserve. Nor can we let billions of dollars remain in Washington, D.C. instead of being invested for better lives in Alaska. The Alaska Chamber of Commerce is right: Good health for Alaskans means good health for our economy.

There is still time to do right by veterans. I applaud Sen. Bill Wielechowski and Rep. Andy Josephson and their legislative colleagues for coming up with a compromise solution that is better for Alaskans. I call on Gov. Parnell to support it.

Byron Mallott is a Democratic candidate for governor.

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