The May 21 New York Times editorialized that 40 U.S. veterans died while waiting for health care at U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals and medical centers. In Phoenix, Ariz., more than 1,300 veterans were told they were getting appointments, but were never notified of them.
The June 10 Times reported on a national VA audit finding that 57,000 people waited over three months for medical appointments at VA facilities; 64,000 others were registered in the system for 10 years and had never seen doctors, despite requests.
The Obama administration responded to the crisis by demanding that VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resign. However, this will not solve the systemic problems within the VA’s health care system. It has not met the enormous need for physical and mental health care for active duty soldiers and veterans wounded in U.S. wars in the Middle East, Vietnam and Korea.
Congress has underfunded veterans’ health care for years, as it has for civilians. Federal budget allotments are minuscule relative to the true need and high costs. Financing the health care of veterans — and civilians — is a much lower priority than funding the Pentagon’s war machine.
Service members are returning from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan by the thousands, with not only physical war wounds, but also hidden wounds, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, including military sexual trauma (MST). They must wait months for care at VA medical centers; many never get it.
In May, the Pentagon reported that MST rates increased by 50 percent in 2013 over 2012, when nearly 7 percent (12,000) of women and 1 percent (14,000) of men said they experienced sexual assault. (Huffington Post, April 5)
The Servicewomen’s Action Network says that these numbers are grossly underreported, as in 2010, when about 19,000 sexual assaults took place, but only 13 percent were reported. SWAN emphasizes that while MST affects both women and men in uniform, servicewomen are at much higher risk for sexual abuse. While one in six civilian women experience sexual assault, the number climbs to one in three among military women.
The Baltimore Sun reported a finding of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project that the VA “approves claims for [PTSD] stemming from military sexual assault or harassment at rates that are ‘significantly lower’ than those for PTSD from combat and other causes.“ So, women, “who are more likely than men to file claims for PTSD related to sexual trauma,” are disproportionately denied compensation for PTSD. (Nov. 8, 2013)
In February 2013, the VA reported 22 suicides a day of U.S. service members. These suicides happen with victims of atrocities, such as MST, usually committed by higher-ranking soldiers whom they knew. Moreover, these soldiers were forced to commit atrocities on people in U.S.-occupied countries. They try to continue their lives as though nothing happened but they cannot.
In addition, the VA says that 60 percent to 80 percent of soldiers are diagnosed with PTSD, including MST, and experience drug and alcohol abuse. (ptsd.va.gov/)
Health care scandal extends beyond VA
While the treatment of veterans at VA medical facilities is appalling, these tragedies are not even the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the scandalous lack of health care for women, children, low-income and Black, Latino/a, Asian and Native people.
Harvard Medical School reported on Sept. 17, 2009, that nearly 45,000 people die per year in the U.S. because they lacked health insurance. The uninsured have a 40 percent greater chance of dying than the insured. (harvard.edu)
However, insured or not, health care disparities cause even more deaths in low-income and people of color communities — the members of which, in 2013, were three times as likely to be uninsured. Additionally, because more than 20 right-wing state governments refuse to expand Medicaid — even with federal funding under the Affordable Care Act — millions of uninsured, low-income, Black, Latino/a, Native, Asian and white workers are being denied medical care.
Even with individual health plan purchases and 26 states expanding Medicaid under the ACA, 13.4 percent of adults still do not have insurance (Gallup.com, May 5), about 32 million people. This is primarily due to its high costs. Like all sectors of this capitalist health care industry — the most expensive system among industrialized countries — insurers aim to maximize profits.
Socialist Cuba: health care for all
While socialist Cuba spends a fraction of what is spent in the U.S. for its health care system, about 5 percent, everyone there is covered. Care is not based on people’s ability to pay, nor do private companies profit. No one is left out. All Cubans get excellent treatment.
Cuba has made tremendous strides, as UNICEF reported in 2012. Life expectancy has surpassed that in the U.S. Annual deaths for children under five numbered 6 per 1,000, a rate lower than that in the U.S..
The International Journal of Epidemiology reported in 2006 that Cuba’s health care system is “comparable with [that] of industrialized countries,” with success in control of infectious and chronic diseases, “reduction in infant mortality, establishment of a research and biotechnology industry. … If the Cuban experience were generalized to other … countries human health would be transformed.”
U.S. government health care spending is minuscule compared to the trillions of dollars spent on U.S. wars. If the Pentagon budget was slashed, and — as in socialist Cuba — only one agency provided nonprofit health care for all, there could be free, quality health care for every veteran and civilian.
Lewis, a former soldier, and American Servicemen’s Union organizer, currently assists homeless veterans.