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Millions of veterans are about to get expanded healthcare access

Allie Kelly   

Millions of veterans are about to get expanded healthcare access
  • Starting March 5, millions of veterans exposed to toxins will be eligible for healthcare coverage.
  • The VA's expansion applies to veterans who served domestically and abroad.

Beginning on March 5, millions of veterans who were exposed to toxins or other hazards while in training or active service will be eligible for healthcare coverage.

The expansion — announced Monday by the US Department of Veterans Affairs — will apply to veterans who served domestically and abroad.

All veterans who served in the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan, and post-9/11 combat zones will be able to enroll directly in healthcare without first applying for VA benefits. With the change, many veterans will have access to affordable healthcare up to eight years before they previously would have qualified.

Healthcare coverage for veterans applies only to the system of hospitals and medical facilities nationwide where veterans can receive free or affordable care. Specific military, naval, and air service veterans who served in active duty after October 1981 were eligible before recent expansions. VA healthcare fulfills coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act but is a separate entity.

Eligibility for VA healthcare was most recently set by the PACT Act, a 2022 policy that expanded healthcare to service members exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances.

The PACT Act used a phased approach where more veterans would qualify for coverage over time. The latest expansion eliminates the phased approach, instead applying to all eligible veterans and their survivors immediately on March 5.

Some veterans who were never deployed will qualify for healthcare

About nine million veterans are enrolled in VA healthcare plans, per the Department of Veterans Affairs, and more than 500,000 have enrolled since the PACT Act was first announced. The program covers preventive and emergency medicine, prescriptions, surgery, and mental health services. Once enrolled, veterans typically have access for life.

Part of the expansion will allow service members who were never deployed access care, VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal said.

"We can also care for veterans who never deployed but were exposed to toxins or hazards while training or on active duty here at home," Elnahal said in press release published on February 26. "We want to bring all of these veterans to VA for the care they've earned and deserve."

Some veterans can qualify for Medicare and VA healthcare coverage simultaneously, further lowering their co-pay and deductible costs.

Healthcare costs will likely be a key issue in the 2024 election

This VA healthcare expansion comes as the Biden Administration emphasizes medical access and lower drug prices as part of its reelection campaign.

During his presidency, Joe Biden passed the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, negotiated with pharmaceutical companies to lower drug costs, placed a $35 cap on insulin, expanded Medicare access, and built on The Affordable Care Act.

Biden has also expressed support for expanding federal healthcare access for veterans.

"This past year, we delivered more benefits, processed more claims than ever before in VA history," Biden said in a November speech at Arlington National Cemetery. "We expanded resources to end veterans' homelessness, end veterans' poverty, end the silent scourge of suicide, which is taking more veterans than war is."

Per a recent poll by KFF (formerly known as Kaiser Family Foundation), three in four Americans said medical bills are one of their top financial worries. Regardless of party affiliation, 80% of Americans, want candidates to discuss healthcare costs on the campaign trail.

Still, 90% of Democratic voters believe Biden has done more to address healthcare costs, compared to 91% of Republicans who believe former President Donald Trump did more to address costs while he was in office.

In 2018, Trump signed a law that expanded healthcare access for veterans in the private sector, allowing them to seek VA-funded care at their community medical facilities if they meet certain criteria.

Trump, the GOP frontrunner, has not announced any new plans for veteran healthcare access as part of his campaign.

Are you a veteran who will be impacted by expanded healthcare access? Do you have experience with the VA healthcare system? Contact this reporter at allisonkelly@insider.com.


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