Lyle Gessford, a retired U.S. Army major, held up his black U.S. Army ball cap, embellished with a bald eagle crest and gold letters spelling “RETIRED,” to a room of reporters in the State Capitol building on Dec. 17.
Gessford said the hat meant full medical coverage for him and his wife for the rest of their lives, courtesy of the military. But for those soldiers who don’t retire after lifelong careers, soldiers who leave the military after tours to Afghanistan or Iraq and return to Idaho to work or raise families, they don’t receive the same benefits.
“The next young man you see in a veteran hat, rest assured, he has nothing else,” Gessford said.
Gessford said he was speaking on behalf of Idaho KIDS COUNT, a nonprofit policy research organization working to improve outcomes for Idaho children that was launched in 1994.
Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho KIDS COUNT, said Idaho has the second-highest number of uninsured veterans in the nation, after Montana. Necochea said 15 percent of veterans lack health insurance, equaling 10,000 uninsured vets in Idaho.
“I assumed that we honor the noble men and women who serve our country by providing support they need to succeed as civilians,” Necochea said. “I assumed that access to health care is something veterans and their families didn’t have to worry about as they strive to find stable jobs.”
Not the case. For unemployed or underemployed vets, putting food on the table comes before affording health insurance.
But Necochea said Idaho has an opportunity to extend health coverage to thousands of veterans and their family members. She said around 3,800 veterans and 1,200 of their spouses would qualify for health insurance through Medicaid if Idaho's Legislature accepts federal funding that would increase coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
At the press conference, Christine Tiddens of the Catholic Charities of Idaho said more than 20 percent of Idahoans live with no medical insurance. She said the problem is, those people end up relying on costly emergency room visits instead of preventive health care. Idaho taxpayers pay those expensive trips to the ER through the State Catastrophic Health Care and County Indigent programs.
Tiddens said there’s $60 million for health care that goes to uninsured people through those programs, but because ER visits are so costly, it only helps about 6,000 individuals. According to Tiddens, accepting the federal funding would help eliminate those state tax programs.
“[The Medicaid redesign] would come at no additional cost to Idaho taxpayers,” Tiddens said.
The federal government has offered to pay for the first three years of the Medicaid funding increase, then 90 percent of the cost afterward. It started a year ago, though, so if Idaho opted in, it would only have two more years of the program paid.
At Idaho KIDS COUNT’s press conference, James Turner stressed the importance of veterans being able to seek support for mental health issues. He is the director of vocational services at Affinity, Inc., a corporation that provides vocational training and mental health services.
“Mental health services work,” Turner said. “When our vets get the support they need, especially mental health treatment, we have stronger families, communities, and a stronger nation.”
Turner said our vets need affordable health care, “not just ball caps and ribbons.”