It is Memorial Day, and like in past years I will ask that we take a moment here to consider the sacrifices at the heart of this holiday—we remember our fallen, we memorialize our dead. At present, the Veterans Administration is having great difficulty in treating and compensating our war wounded.
Number of Veterans Affected, Multiple Deployments
Since the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, about 2.5 million service members have been deployed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, according to Department of Defense data. Of those, more than 800,000 were deployed more than once; 400,000 have done three or more deployments, and nearly 37,000 were deployed more than five times. Obviously, multiple deployments increase the likelihood of service related injuries.
Wounded & Injured
It is worth noting that although considered the longest wars in U.S. history, Iraq and Afghanistan have produced relatively few U.S. service member deaths: 6,648 (as of March, 2013), but have produced a large number of wounded in action (roughly 50,000). According to reports such as Modern Warfare, by Alec C. Beekley, MD, FACS, LTC, MC, US Army, Harold Bohman, MD, CAPT, MC, US Navy, and Danielle Schindler, MD, compared to Vietnam, the mortality rate of combat wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq has decreased by nearly half. New medical procedures, protective gear such as body armor and faster medical evacuation are saving more than 90 percent of all those who fall in battle, many of whom would have died on the battlefield just a generation ago. They live, but they are compromised substantially.
Type of Injuries
Notably, according to Modern Warfare, prior wars “had a higher proportion of thoracic injuries and fewer head and neck injuries. There has been a decreased incidence of wounds to the abdomen since the Persian Gulf War. The percentage of blast-related injuries is now higher.”
The number of injured are estimated by many to be ten and twenty times the number wounded in action.
As would be expected with the dominance of “blast related injuries,” hearing loss, traumatic brain injury (TBI), PTSD and clinical depression, are leading injuries, with hearing loss first. A 2005 Department of Veterans Affairs research paper found that one third of returning soldiers were referred to audiologists due to exposure to blasts, and 72% of them were identified as having hearing loss; a 2013 report by the U.S. Congressional Research Service estimates that 255,330 members of the military suffer from TBI; a 2008 study by the Rand Corp found that 14% of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans screened positive for PTSD, 14% for major depression, and 19% had a probable traumatic brain injury.
And notably, the VA reports that 37% of the claims it has backlogged at present are from Vietnam Veterans, a great influx of which (260,000) occurred after the VA finally expanded the number of illnesses presumed to be associated with Agent Orange.
- Despite assurances from the Obama Administration that the VA would be streamlined, “the internal documents show the VA expects the number of veterans waiting – currently about 900,000 – to continue to increase throughout 2013 and top a million by the end of this month [March, 2013].
- The VA’s internal documents “show that the average wait time for veterans filing disability claims fell by more than a third under President George W. Bush, even as more than 320,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans filed disability claims.
- The documents show delays escalated only after Obama took office and have more than doubled since, as 455,000 more returning veterans filed their claims.”
- Pointedly, under President Obama “the ranks of veterans waiting more than a year for their benefits grew from 11,000 in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency, to 245,000 in December – an increase of more than 2,000 percent.”
- Although the VA tracks and widely publishes the avg. number of days it takes to process a claim (273 days), that number pointedly does not refer to new claims. The average number of days to process a new claim in Newark is 371.6 days
That amounts to roughly a year and a week for an initial claim in Newark, New Jersey– a very long time to live for a disabled veteran without much needed payments.
And importantly, if a veteran fails to characterize the claim correctly, the appeals process can literally take 2 and 3 years.
 Chris Adams, Millions went to war in Iraq, Afghanistan, leaving many with lifelong scars, McClatchy News (March 14, 2013), http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2013/03/14/185880/millions-went-to-war-in-iraq-afghanistan.html.
 Alec. C. Beckley, et al., Modern Warfare, in Lessons Learned from OEF and OIF: Combat Casualty Care (Office of the Surgeon General Department of the Army, 2012), available at http://www.cs.amedd.army.mil/borden/book/ccc/UCLAchp1.pdf .
See Linda J. Bilmes, The Financial Legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan: How Wartime Spending Decisions will Cancel Out the Peace Dividend (2013) citing VBA Office of Performance, VA Benefits Activity, Veterans Deployed to the Global War on Terror (through September 2012) (noting that 56% of veterans deployed have received VA medical facility service and that one in two have filed disability claims— and that 2.5 million have served), http://costsofwar.org/sites/all/themes/costsofwar/images/Financial_leg.pdf; Dan Froomkin, How many U.S. soldiers were wounded in Iraq? We have no idea, Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University (Dec. 30, 2011), at http://www.niemanwatchdog.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=ask_this.view&askthisid=545.
 Froomkin, supra at note 5.
 Stephen A. Fausti, et al., Hearing health and care: The need for improved hearing loss prevention and hearing conservation practices, 42-4 J. of Rehab. Res. & Dev. 45 (July/Aug. 2005) at http://www.rehab.research.va.gov/jour/05/42/4suppl2/fausti.html
 U.S. Congressional Research Service, U.S. Military Casualty Statistics: Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom, Feb.5, 2013; See also Spencer Ackerman, The Cost of War Includes at Least 253,330 Brain Injuries and 1,700 Amputations, Wired, Feb. 8, 2013, http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2013/02/cost-of-war/.
 Rand Corp., Invisible Wounds of War, (2008), available at http://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG720.html.
 Allison Hickey, Balancing the Record on the Claims Backlog, Vantage Point: Dispatches from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (Mar . 19, 2013), http://www.blogs.va.gov/VAntage/8995/balancing-the-record-on-the-claims-backlog/.
 Aaron Glantz, VA’s ability to quickly provide benefits plummets under Obama, Center for Investigative Reporting (March 11, 2013), http://cironline.org/reports/va%E2%80%99s-ability-quickly-provide-benefits-plummets-under-obama-4241
 Fresh Air, Veterans Face Red Tape Accessing Disability, Other Benefits, Phila. Public Radio (March 18, 2014), http://www.npr.org/2013/03/19/174639343/veterans-face-red-tape-accessing-disability-other-benefits.
 Glantz, supra note 8 at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/612975-avgprocessingdays.html.
As those nationwide prepared for their holiday gift exchange, American lawmakers inexplicably put an end to a different type of exchange: a life-saving and successful public health tool called needle exchange.
House Republicans fought for, and won, a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs in a massive spending bill passed in December that will fund the federal government until the fall of 2012. The ban prevents the federal government from spending money funding needle exchange programs not only in the United States, but also restricts the State Department from funding syringe programs internationally. Providing federal funding to such programs had been banned from 1988 to 2009, until finally the ban was ended after the election of Barack Obama. Now it’s back.
These programs focus on high drug-use neighborhoods, providing free clean needles to intravenous drug users in an effort to prevent the spread of blood-borne diseases, including HIV/AIDS. They are often accompanied by HIV counseling and testing, and typically also provide referrals to drug users for treatment. After much debate about their effectiveness, data have shown that the programs drastically reduce infection rates and do not increase illegal drug use. Further, the programs, which currently exist in 33 states, are widely supported by the scientific and public health community, from the CDC to the AMA to the National Academy of Sciences. When the Washington, D.C. Department of Health looked at the efficaciousness of its needle exchange programs, 800,000 needles had been exchanged, 5000 HIV tests had been offered, and 900 people had been referred to drug treatment. Unsurprisingly, the number of new HIV/AIDS infections dropped 60 percent in Washington, a city devastated by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. In New York, the numbers of intravenous drug users with HIV have dropped from 50 percent in the 1980s to 16 percent today, following the implementation of a needle exchange program.
Not only do they make scientific sense, but they also make fiscal sense: needle exchange programs reduce health spending in the long run. According to a 2002 report by the Institute of Medicine, needle exchange programs save between $3,000 and $50,000 for each infection prevented.
But the news was not all baffling over the holidays. In New Jersey, state lawmakers approved a bill allowing pharmacists to sell needles and syringes without a prescription, and it now awaits Governor Chris Christie’s signature. Although previously against needle exchanges, Christie has said he has an open mind and will carefully review the bill. And unsurprisingly, according to the New Jersey State Health Department, more than 40 percent of the state’s HIV or AIDS cases were a result of intravenous drug users’ use of contaminated needles.
When it comes to such common sense policy that is effective in reducing new infections, provides support and outreach to those struggling with addiction, is supported by data and the scientific community, and provides smart savings on health care costs in the long run, the ban on such a policy is not only confounding and irresponsible, but dangerous to us all.
Clean Needles in New Jersey, N.Y. Times Editorial, Dec. 14, 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/opinion/clean-needles-in-new-jersey.html?_r=1 (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).
Emily Badger, Feds Poke Hole in Needle Exchange Funding, Miller-McCune, Dec. 20, 2011, available at http://www.miller-mccune.com/health/feds-poke-hole-in-needle-exchange-funding-38518/ (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).
Kristen Gwynne, Risking Lives: In 2012 Spending Deal, House GOP Slaps Ban on Federally Funded Syringe Exchange Programs, AlterNet, Dec. 16, 2011, available at http://www.alternet.org/newsandviews/article/749233/risking_lives%3A_in_2012_spending_deal,_house_gop_slaps_ban_on_federally_funded_syringe_exchange_programs/ (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).
N.J. Lawmakers Approve Sales of Needles, Action News, Dec. 5, 2011, available at http://abclocal.go.com/wpvi/story?section=news/local&id=8455789 (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).
Sarah Barr, Needle-Exchange Programs Face New Federal Funding Ban, Kaiser Health News, Dec. 21, 2011, available at http://www.kaiserhealthnews.org/Stories/2011/December/21/needle-exchange-federal-funding.aspx (last accessed Jan. 3, 2012).
Last week, Nic Terry compiled a list of current threats to Medicaid funding. As he noted then, Medicaid coverage is increasingly becoming meaningless for those seeking specialist care. Though more people are slated to enter the program, policymakers are unlikely to fix these flaws before they arrive. To the contrary, “physician reimbursement will decrease, and hospitals are looking to cross-subsidize some of their Medicaid patient expenditures from the privately insured.” Something to remember next time we hear about how imperative it is to cut public health expenditures: there is an inevitable pressure to “rob Peter to pay Paul.”
The budget drama narrative has so far focused on Republican efforts to further slash (or end) Medicaid, and Democratic resistance. But now even the Obama Administration is showing signs of reverting to form and endorsing a patina of Medicaid coverage without its substance. It is now too scared to even try to assess the full extent of the access problem. Like “death panels” before, the buzzword “spying on doctors” ended a promising program to measure the relative difficulty of getting access to care using different forms of insurance.
Obama officials are also engaged in more troubling substantive capitulations. Consider this CBPP report:
An Obama Administration proposal that’s on the table for budget negotiators would reduce federal Medicaid expenditures by reducing the federal share of Medicaid and CHIP costs, shifting costs to states and likely prompting states to cut payments to health care providers and to scale back the health services that Medicaid covers for low-income children, parents, people with disabilities, and/or senior citizens (including those in nursing homes). . . . The proposal would replace the various matching rates at which the federal government reimburses states for their costs in insuring people through Medicaid and CHIP with a single “blended rate” for each state. A state’s blended rate would be set at a level that provided the state with less federal funding than under current law, thereby saving the federal government money.
Abigail Moncrief has noted that states “are statutorily required—and should be judicially required—to pay a reasonable price for the services they buy” by the Medicaid Act’s equal access provision (42 U.S.C. 1396a(a)(30)(A)). But the Obama Justice Department is apparently complementing the budget team cost cutters by arguing that the Supremacy Clause does not “provide a cause of action for an injunction to enforce” the equal access provision. As Steve Vladeck observes, this is “a shift in policy that, if endorsed by the Supreme Court, would make it all-but-impossible to enforce the equal access mandate–one of the most important statutory requirements of the Medicaid program.”
I don’t think anyone expected the Democratic leadership and the president to walk away from their own hard fought health care reforms before they even had a chance to be implemented. . . . I did think they would have wanted to give their legacy issue a chance to be implemented in full at the beginning, so they could continue to brag about bringing health care to 30 million uninsured Americans if nothing else. . . .But as the president says, in these tough times the government has to tighten its belt just like all American families. I guess he must realize that one of the things American families have had to cut out is their health insurance. So much for that legacy.
Perhaps a “balanced solution” to the budget debate is impossible now. But let’s at least acknowledge where we are heading with the endless Medicaid cost cutting. Much of the developing world has what is essentially a “charity option” for the very poor: they have nowhere near the purchasing power necessary to buy care, but have to rely on the kindness of strangers or NGO’s. We are not imminently headed to that level of catch-as-catch-can care for all of the Medicaid population’s problems: very urgent problems will continue to get attention due to some combination of EMTALA and Medicaid funding. But for many other types of issues, we may need to rely more and more on a combination of cost-shifting and charity. One model is the Global Eye Foundation in India, where “more than 80 percent of the surgeries that the model hospital performs are free of cost to the patient.” When you hear establishment economists talk about increasing the “competitiveness” of the American labor force, and fighting rising health care costs, remember that moving to a developing world model of care is one powerful way of achieving those ends.
A UPI article (via the RWJF feed) notes that the PPACA provision that allows “young adults who are not full-time students to remain on their parents’ insurance plans until they are 26 years old,” has resulted in a gain of 600,000 additional persons to the insurance rolls in the first quarter of this year according to Forbes Magazine.
The article also notes that a recent Kaiser study shows that “46 percent more small businesses- those with 10 or fewer employees – were now offering health insurance to their workers.
The gain was prompted by a tax benefit offered in the Affordable Care Act.”
Looks like steps in the right direction. Read more here.
In a post last week, “Insurers’ Profits Swell, Nation Can’t Afford to Get Sick, Can’t Afford to Get Well,” I noted with some distaste that health insurers were said to be looking “for premium increases amidst what [Reed] Abelson describes as ‘flush’ reserve coffers and shareholders ‘rewarded with new dividends.’”
As you might have gleamed from the title of the post, the primary reason for the increased profits was thought to be attributable to “a recessionary mindset” which has led to the insured deferring treatment and thereby not utilizing their health insurance benefits.
As I noted then, despite record profits now, “someday there might be a rainy day” [was/is] a common refrain/justification among insurers.”
Apparently, the Obama administration was none too thrilled with either the prospect of double digit premium increases or the justification. The New York Times reports that
Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, issued a final rule establishing procedures for federal and state insurance experts to scrutinize premiums. Insurers, she said, will have to justify rate increases in an environment in which they are doing well financially, with profits exceeding the expectations of many Wall Street analysts.
“Health insurance companies have recently reported some of their highest profits in years and are holding record reserves,” Ms. Sebelius said. “Insurers are seeing lower medical costs as people put off care and treatment in a recovering economy, but many insurance companies continue to raise their rates. Often, these increases come without any explanation or justification.”
PPACA requires annual reviews of “unreasonable increases in premiums.” Starting in September, insurers will need to justify rate increases over 10 percent–with state by state adjustments to that presumptive number the following year. You can read more about the details here, in the Times.