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Expanding Medicaid could help 13,000 Illinois vets

Published: Friday, May 10, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

CHICAGO – More than 40,000 uninsured military veterans in Illinois could have new access to health insurance under the national health overhaul law, according to a new interactive tool based on U.S. census data.

About 13,000 veterans – one-third of those without insurance – have incomes so low that they’ll be newly eligible for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. These vets may remain uninsured unless Illinois lawmakers approve the expansion of the Medicaid program before they leave Springfield this year.

The new online tool being launched Friday from the Chicago advocacy group Health and Disability Advocates shows other characteristics – such as age, gender and race – of the Illinoisans who would benefit under the new health law. It is searchable by county, region and community area.

The Associated Press reviewed the online tool, called Visualizing Health Care Reform, a day ahead of the public release.

The group created the tool to help nonprofit groups, health care providers and government agencies target outreach efforts on the new benefits provided under the law. For example, it shows that middle-income adults, earning between $47,100 and $94,200 for a family of four, account for nearly half of the uninsured in the state.

Nationally, about 1 in 10 veterans younger than 65 are uninsured, despite their military service, according to research by the nonpartisan Urban Institute. President Barack Obama’s national health law requires that nearly all Americans have health insurance beginning in 2014 or pay a penalty. Veterans who are enrolled in Veterans Affairs health care don’t have to buy additional insurance.

But VA care is out of reach for some veterans who don’t live near VA hospitals and clinics. And the VA serves only a limited number of veterans, with top priority going to those with service-related disabilities or low incomes. Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are eligible for VA health services for five years after leaving the military, but then must meet certain priority classifications to get care.

“A lot of people are surprised to find out there are any uninsured veterans. People tend to assume any veteran automatically is enrolled in VA care,” said Jennifer Haley, co-author of the Urban Institute report.

Obama’s health law intended for an expansion of Medicaid to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, or nearly $15,860 for an individual. About 15 million people – mostly adults without children at home – could eventually be covered if all states expand. Last year, the Supreme Court gave states the right to reject the expansion without risking the rest of their federal Medicaid money.

Lawmakers in Obama’s home state haven’t approved the Medicaid expansion, although Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn supports it and the law is the president’s signature domestic achievement. The Illinois Senate in February approved a measure authorizing expansion. Officials expect the House to vote on the issue before the Legislature’s scheduled May 31 adjournment.

In March, a study from the Urban Institute found that nationwide 535,000 uninsured veterans and 174,000 uninsured veterans’ spouses would qualify for coverage under the Medicaid expansion. Of those, most live in states that have decided not to expand Medicaid or where the decision to expand hasn’t yet been made.

“The reality is we’re not doing nearly enough for our veterans,” said Laura Gallagher Watkin, director of veteran programs for Health and Disability Advocates. “The VA is a wonderful resource, but they can’t do it all. I think all of us have a responsibility to care for veterans’ health needs. They’ve done so much for us, we need to make sure we’re caring for them.”

The Visualizing Health Care Reform online tool was funded by grants from the Chicago Community Trust, the Michael Reese Health Trust and the Lloyd A. Fry Foundation.

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