1.53 Million Veterans Are Uninsured and 2 Million Can’t Afford Care, New Harvard-Public Citizen Study Finds

As Veteran’s Day Approaches and COVID-19 Cases Spike, Many Veterans Lack Adequate Health Coverage, Skip Care

Veteran in Wheelchair

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Three years into the Trump administration, millions of American veterans have been left without adequate – or any – health care coverage as the coronavirus pandemic continues to devastate the U.S., a new study by Harvard and Public Citizen found.

The study, carried out by researchers at Harvard Medical School, the City University of New York’s Hunter College and Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, found 1.53 million veterans nationwide were uninsured last year. Additionally, about 1 in 12 veterans – 2 million individuals – also go without needed physician care annually because of cost.

“Many veterans have chronic conditions that put them at risk for severe COVID-19,” said Dr. Adam Gaffney, a pulmonary and critical care physician at Harvard Medical School and the Cambridge Health Alliance and author of the report. “The low rates of vaccination we found among uninsured veterans means that most of them would likely face barriers to obtaining a COVID-19 vaccination, if and when one becomes available.” He added, “The VA does an excellent job of caring for veterans, but too many are left out – including 1.5 million with no other form of coverage.”

Around 9 million veterans are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration (VA), but not all veterans are eligible for VA coverage. Ineligible veterans may have few coverage options, especially in states like Texas that have not accepted the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion that allows low-income veterans to qualify for Medicaid. Texas had the largest number of uninsured veterans at 246,086, or more than one of every 10 of the state’s veterans.

Veterans with serious conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (12.5%), asthma (14.6%) and strokes (13.3%) were especially likely to skip care because of cost. Uninsured veterans were even more likely to go without preventive care, as 17.3% have had no check-up in the last five years. Only 29% had received an influenza vaccination in the last year, and among older veterans and those with chronic conditions only 38.3% had ever received a pneumonia vaccination.

“The president boasts that he has improved healthcare for our veterans. But his claim belies the fact that a million and a half vets remain uninsured three years into his tenure in office,” said Dr. David Himmelstein, a distinguished professor at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, a lecturer at Harvard Medicine and a research associate at Public Citizen. “Trump has pushed to privatize the VA and has undermined health care coverage, leaving many vets who need care with nowhere to turn. With Veterans Day around the corner, it’s high time the president honored vets, rather than undermining their care.”

The study was based on data from the 2019 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. The researchers identified veterans based on the survey’s question about active duty service in the U.S. military, national guard or military reserves.

The study is available here.