Tester urges VA to drop restrictions, expand care to Priority 8 veterans

The Billings Gazette

by Cindy Uken

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is calling on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to expand health care coverage to include all former soldiers regardless of income or whether they are wounded.

Tester is Montana’s sole member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and has called on VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to rapidly return Priority 8 veterans to the health care system. Priority 8 veterans are men and women who have no service-connected disabilities, make above a certain amount of money and are not allowed to enroll in the VA health program. There are at least 18,000 Priority 8 veterans in Montana who stand to gain health care benefits if Tester is successful in his quest.

Tester has long lobbied for all Priority 8 veterans to receive health care and has timed this request to coincide with Shinseki’s effort to craft the VA’s next budget proposal.

In 2003, then-VA Secretary Anthony Principi, who worked under President George W. Bush, halted Priority 8 enrollments. He argued that their numbers strained the system and crowded out higher-priority veterans, including those who were wounded and returning from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Under current restrictions, a veteran with an annual income of $35,577 can be denied VA health benefits. The amount varies by state but it is about $35,000 in Montana.

In 2009, as President Barack Obama took office, Congress provided the VA with enough money to begin enrolling some Priority 8 veterans, and the expansion began. The VA announced that up to 266,000 veterans with no service-connected health conditions would be allowed to enroll in VA health care. Those who enrolled earned less than $35,000 annually. Nearly 12,000 of the 30,000 eligible Priority 8 veterans in Montana were enrolled at that time.

But thousands are still blocked from enrolling, and that’s the gap Tester is working to close. During the first six months of this year, nearly 47,000 veterans applied for VA enrollment but were denied health care due to income.

“All of the men and women who put their lives on the line for this country deserve the best health care possible,” Tester said. “This country is facing some tough decisions when it comes to the budget, but I won’t allow us to deny needed care to Montana veterans who have served this country honorably.”

It is unclear exactly how many middle-income veterans fall outside the defined threshold, but a 2008 estimate by the VA puts the figure around 1.5 million. Tester has called on Shinseki to conduct another survey of veterans without access to health care and report back on how he plans to end the temporary suspension.

Sue Davidson, who served more than three decades in the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Army Reserves and was recently elected commander of the Montana Disabled American Veterans, Chapter 10, fully supports Tester’s request.

“There are veterans out there that have honorably served their country and because they did not get enrolled by 2003, they are being denied benefits because of their income level,” said Davidson, of Billings. “Before that, a veteran could get VA health care just because they were a veteran no matter how much they made.”

Tester’s call for inclusion also comes at a time when hundreds of men and women have been returning to Montana from service in Iraq and Afghanistan and his effort has not gone unnoticed.

“Supporting the veterans who have served our state and nation is one of my highest priorities,” said Brig. Gen. John E. Walsh, adjutant general for the Montana National Guard.