At a joint press conference with President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines on Monday, Fox News Chief White House Correspondent Ed Henry asked President Obama to explain what actions he is taking with regard to the report of 40 U.S. military veterans who died while waiting for care at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system. The President told Henry that two investigations are underway, and referenced his record of support for the Department of Veterans Affairs, but both he and Henry missed an opportunity to save veterans' lives now.
As part of a three-question volley to Presidents Obama and Aquino, Henry said "Back home, we’ve learned that 40 military veterans died while they were waiting for health care, a very tragic situation. I know you don’t run the Phoenix Office of Veterans Affairs, but as Commander-in-Chief, what specifically will you pledge to fix that?"
After answering Henry's first question at length, the President circled back to the VA question, telling Henry that "The moment we heard about the allegations around these 40 individuals who had died in Phoenix, I immediately ordered the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General Shinseki, to investigate," adding "We also have an IG investigation taking place. And so we take the allegations very seriously."
"That is consistent with what has been my rock-solid commitment to make sure that our veterans are cared for," the President continued. "I believe that if somebody has served our nation then they have to get the benefits and services that they have earned. And my budgets have consistently reflected that. That's why we’ve resourced the Veterans Affairs office more in terms of increases than any other department or agency in my government."
President Obama concluded by noting that "That doesn’t mean, though, that some folks may still not be getting the help that they need. And we're going to find out if, in fact, that's the case, and I'm interested in working with everybody, whether it's our outstanding veteran service organizations or Congress, to make sure that there is not a single veteran in the United States who needs help -- whether because they’re homeless, because they’re sick, because they’re looking for a job. I want to make sure that they are getting the help that they need."
The President's concern for veterans is justified, as is Ed Henry's. The Veterans Administration has been overwhelmed for a very long time, and the Phoenix story is a tragic indication of the consequences. Investigating that story and funding the Department of Veterans Affairs are very important steps, but the President missed an opportunity in his response, and Ed Henry missed an opportunity in his reporting, to encourage action that will save veterans' lives right now.
Every year, tens of thousands of people die because they don't have health insurance, and among the uninsured are 1.3 million military vets. As of January 1, 2014, the Affordable Care Act allowed states to expand Medicaid to all adults making below 138 percent of the federal poverty line, an expansion which, to her credit, Governor Jan Brewer (R-AZ) enacted despite intense political pressure not to. Twenty-four other states have chosen not to expand Medicaid, despite the fact that the federal government will pay 100% of the cost for the first three years, and not less than 90% thereafter.
That Medicaid expansion came too late for the veterans who died waiting for care in Phoenix, allegedly while on waiting lists that were manipulated to conceal the hospital's violation of VA policy, but according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, hundreds of thousands of veterans could be helped by the Medicaid expansion, if only those holdout states would act:
• There are 1.3 million uninsured veterans in the United States.
• An estimated 40 percent of uninsured veterans (535,000 people) have incomes that, under provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), could qualify them for Medicaid.
• Whether or not these veterans could qualify for Medicaid under the ACA depends on whether—and which—states opt to expand Medicaid.
• Most of those eligible—about 414,000 uninsured veterans—will only have new coverage options if they live in a state that expands Medicaid.
President Obama is correct, this incident needs to be investigated, those responsible need to be held accountable, and the Department of Veterans Affairs must be given the resources it needs. But the hundreds of thousands of veterans who are being left out of the Medicaid expansion could be helped today if governors and legislatures in those 24 states would ask.