We should return the favor to our veterans, expand health coverage

While millions of Americans have health insurance coverage through the Affordable Care Act, Maine’s uninsured rate is increasing. Far too many still can’t afford coverage, go without needed medical care and face financial ruin if struck by unexpected illness.

One large uninsured group is veterans. Brave men and women who defended our country and fought for our freedom are often unable to afford quality medical treatment when they return home.

Though we come from vastly different experiences and perspectives, we speak with one voice to this urgent problem.

One of us is a U.S. Navy veteran who served his country honorably but despite education and experience ended up walking six-and-a-half miles per day to work minimum wage jobs. Hard work didn’t prevent me from becoming depressed and hopeless in a shelter for a year, with mounting fear that the Veterans Administration health plan wouldn’t adequately cover treatment for an illness that runs in my family.

The other is a law student who wouldn’t be able to write this today without the amazing medical treatment I received to survive a life-threatening brain condition. That treatment was only available thanks to health insurance, which covered almost a million dollars of medical bills. For many weeks, each trip to the mailbox yielded at least one bill, from ambulance rides to hospital expenses to therapy. These bills would be financially crippling without insurance.

That’s the difference between having comprehensive affordable health care and not. Illness and injury are never planned or easy to deal with, but insurance at least makes timely and effective treatment an option.

For many Maine people, including thousands of veterans who are unable to access affordable medical treatment, the situation is dire. The reality though is that we can help our veterans and others with low income; there’s an easy way to make sure none of us has to face health crises without insurance.

Hundreds of millions of federal dollars are already set aside for Maine to provide low-income people with comprehensive health coverage. Simply by accepting these federal funds, we can both reduce Maine’s rising uninsured rates and help our veterans.

All that’s needed is for Maine to pass legislation allowing the state to accept the federal funds. Just like that, nearly 70,000 Maine people, including about 3,000 veterans and another 1,000 family members would gain access to health care to help keep them healthy and in their homes.

Opponents claim accepting these funds could hurt hospitals or our state economy, but the Maine Hospital Association has endorsed providing coverage for the uninsured, and information from states that accepted the funds show major benefits including savings in state programs and reductions in uncompensated health care costs.

Others fear shaking up a state health care system that works for them, but Maine needs a health care system that also works for uninsured Mainers, including veterans, many of whom can’t afford care and go without medical treatment.

It may be a surprise to many that not all veterans have access to Veterans Administration health programs, but despite the Veterans Administration quality, low-cost care, many veterans don’t qualify or are unable to access Veterans Administration services. Federal funds would bridge the gap for veterans and family members, including those who live in rural areas of the state, not near a Veterans Administration facility.

An estimated 40 percent of uninsured veterans would gain coverage under the Affordable Care Act’s provision to provide federal funding to states to expand access to health insurance coverage.

About 10 percent of Mainers are veterans, which ranks among the top three in the country. That’s because Mainers are patriots who love their country and want to take care of it. Now it’s time for us to reciprocate.

No veterans should have to sleep in a shelter because they are too sick to work. No veterans’ families should face eviction because health care costs have bankrupted them. We need to show our veterans that, regardless of their economic status, they are not forgotten, even after the "welcome home" and Veterans Day parades are over.

It’s not too late for Maine to accept the federal funds. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have submitted bills to do so. Maine residents can contact their local legislators and ask them to work together on a plan that works for all Maine people.

Providing veterans with the health care they deserve would not only be a gesture of thanks for their service, it also would help them achieve their dreams – giving them care that allows them to work, engage in their communities and prosper.

Ben Bornstein is a student at University of Maine School of Law. Thomas Ptacek is the community organizer for Preble Street Veterans Healthcare Outreach.