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Medicaid expansion would benefit Idaho veterans

Idaho has the second-highest rate of uninsured veterans in the nation, and if the state chose to expand its Medicaid program at federal expense, more than a third of those uninsured vets could get coverage, according to Idaho KidsCount.

“Many of us assume, like I did, that the men and women who serve our country are honored with the supports they need to adjust to civilian life,” said Lauren Necochea, director of Idaho KidsCount.

But veterans only automatically qualify for Tricare coverage if they retire after 20 years of service, she said. Those returning from deployment get Veterans Affairs coverage for five years; only those with documented service-connected disabilities may receive care beyond that.

Idaho KidsCount this week released a report showing that an estimated 10,000 military veterans in the state – 15 percent – currently lack health insurance. That rate is second only to Montana, where 17.3 percent of veterans are uninsured; Washington is roughly in the middle of the states, with about 10 percent of veterans lacking coverage.

If Idaho opted to expand its Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act, something the state’s not yet taken any action on, the group estimates that 3,800 of its uninsured vets would be covered, along with 1,200 spouses.

“This concerns us at Idaho KidsCount because we care about veterans and because we know that many veterans are also parents,” Necochea said. “We know that kids need healthy, strong parents to care for them and families need economic security to thrive.”

Expanding Medicaid is a touchy issue in Idaho due to state officials’ disdain for the federal health care reform law. But the state’s current program for dealing with catastrophic medical costs for those who can’t pay – the county indigency and state Catastrophic Fund program – costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year and draws no federal aid.

A University of Idaho study this year estimated that Medicaid expansion could save the state budget more than $600 million in the next decade and save county property taxpayers $478 million.

Medicaid expansion originally was a mandatory part of the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, but the U.S. Supreme Court made it optional for states.

Currently, Idaho covers non-disabled adults under its state-federal Medicaid program only if they have children and make less than 20 percent of the poverty level, or $4,584 a year for a family of four. Expansion would cover up to 138 percent of poverty level, or $31,000 a year for a family of four. Washington already has opted for expansion.

Lyle Gessford, a retired major in the U.S. Army, called the high rate of uninsured veterans in Idaho “a serious and growing deficiency.”

“Idaho must come to the table and deal with the issues of affordable medical insurance and care for our citizens, and it is a shame that we have not already done that for our veterans,” he said.

He and several other veterans advocates joined KidsCount this week to release the new report and push for Medicaid expansion. Last month, the state’s biggest business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, wrote to Gov. Butch Otter to urge him to consider the move.

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