CHI Analysis: 45% of Eligible Colorado Veterans Not Enrolled in VA Health Coverage
A new analysis of the Colorado Health Institute (CHI) reveals that 45% of the approximately 314,000 Colorado veterans who are eligible for health care through the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are not enrolled. These people do not benefit from free or low-cost health services due to factors such as barriers to access, mistrust and lack of awareness of eligibility.
CHI conducted the analysis using data from the US Census Bureau and the VA in March 2021.
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While about 97% of Colorado veterans have some sort of health coverage, this data shows that many are missing out on potentially beneficial VA benefits. Benefits include allowances for nursing home care, reduced care costs for disabled veterans, and access to providers who are familiar with the health of veterans.
Mountain resort communities like Pitkin (82%) and Eagle (84%) counties had the highest rates of unregistered eligible veterans, while southern and western counties like Mineral (16%) and Mesa (18%) had the weakest. CHI says this may be attributable to the locations of the VA facilities, which are mostly found in the Front Range and Mesa County.
Colorado has two VA medical centers and 18 community outpatient clinics in which VA registrants can receive primary and specialty care.
Through conversations with Veterans, policy makers, and Veterans Serving Organizations (VSOs), CHI has identified four main barriers to enrollment. The first is a complex registration process, which requires most veterans to understand the VA eligibility criteria and benefits that apply to them, and to complete the registration documents. This complicated process prevents many eligible veterans from receiving benefits, says CHI.
The second hurdle is that many veterans are unaware of their eligibility for VA health insurance. According to CHI, about 30% of U.S. veterans do not know the eligibility criteria for enrolling in the VA. Some veterans sever ties with the military after their service, while others do not receive adequate eligibility information when they leave the military.
Third, some eligible Veterans choose not to enroll in VA benefits because VA facilities can be difficult to access, depending on a Veteran’s location. For veterans living in more urban areas or in Front Range and Mesa County, opting for private insurance – which perhaps offers more easily accessible facilities – might make more sense. But for the state’s 48,000 rural veterans, alternative care facilities might not be so readily available. The limited transportation options for these people compound the problem.
A representative from VSO told CHI:
“We [VSOs] have vans that will take veterans to Denver for services. But the problem is, we are talking about a four hour drive and it requires a very early morning. You’re going to Denver, and you might get to your date, and maybe not. They come back at 2 p.m. whether you are seen or not.
The last obstacle is mistrust of VA. CHI cites a case in which 40 veterans died in Arizona while awaiting treatment from a VA facility as an example of stories that diminish veterans’ confidence in the administration. Like the demographics of the army change, some veteran, LGBTQ + and non-white women feel that VA services have not accommodated the growing diversity of veterans and choose not to enroll.
CHI offers multiple solutions to policy makers and VSOs to increase enrollment among eligible veterans. This includes simplifying the enrollment system – for example, an “opt-out” policy could automatically enroll eligible veterans for VA health benefits and allow veterans to choose to opt out of the program.
Another solution is to better inform veterans about their benefits. CHI lists Colorado legislation as HB 18-1337, which established a service center in Grand Junction that provided veterans in the area with information about their benefits, as an example of how to achieve this.
Educational outreach should also be conducted after veterans return from service, says CHI, as veterans are currently informed of their VA benefits when they are about to leave service – a time when they are likely focused on. the transition to home life, not how to apply for VA benefits.