CHICAGO – Governor Rod R. Blagojevich and Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn today urged the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to do a better job of assessing returning veterans’ health needs and challenges, and to lay out specific plans to expand health care coverage and treatments. In a joint letter to USDVA Secretary Nicholson, the Governor and the Lt. Governor said it is unacceptable that the federal authorities do not have a clear grasp of our Iraq and Afghanistan returning veterans’ health needs, in spite of a recent report that says that nearly a third of them are suffering from multiple medical issues, including mental health conditions.
“We believe veterans deserve to have their sacrifices recognized and honored,” Gov. Blagojevich and Lt. Gov. Quinn wrote, “and a big part of the gratitude we owe them deals with making sure veterans can see a doctor when they need it, buy prescriptions when they need them, and receive the federal benefits they’re entitled to.”
An Institute of Medicine report found that nearly 29 percent of Gulf War veterans have experienced medical issues since their return, as opposed to 16 percent of servicemen and women not deployed. The study could not identify the cause of the divergence due to the military’s poor record keeping. The Governor and Lt. Governor’s letter underscored that without adequate data, the federal VA will have a difficult time identifying veterans who are eligible for special disability benefits.
The returning veterans’ health needs are further complicated by the fact that all servicemen and women, including Reserve and National Guard members, who served in a theater of combat operations are eligible for hospital care, medical services, and nursing home care for injuries or illnesses that may be related to combat service only for a period up to two years beginning on the date of discharge or release from service.
“If the federal government won’t look out for the needs of our veterans, then the Land of Lincoln will step up,” Gov. Blagojevich and Lt. Gov. Quinn wrote. “But in light of the Institute of Medicine report, we urge your department to commission a thorough study on the pressing health needs returning veterans face, and to outline specific plans to expand coverage and treatment to our veterans.”
The text of the letter to Secretary R. James Nicholson is printed below:
R. James Nicholson
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C., 20420
We are writing today regarding the recent report by the Institute of Medicine which highlights serious health issues facing many of our returning veterans. While the report spends a great deal of space discussing whether there’s a Gulf War Syndrome, the bottom-line issue – finding new approaches to improve our veterans’ health – was left unaddressed.
We believe veterans deserve to have their sacrifices recognized and honored, and a big part of the gratitude we owe them deals with making sure veterans can see a doctor when they need it, buy prescriptions when they need them, and receive the federal benefits they’re entitled to.
The report points out that nearly 29 percent of Gulf War veterans experience medical issues, compared with 16 percent of servicemen and women who where not sent to the Persian Gulf. Additionally, the report stresses that Gulf War veterans have higher rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But because the military did not do a good job assessing the health of troops before and after deployment it will be very hard to determine whether Gulf War veterans are eligible for special disability benefits.
This is unacceptable.
Thousands of disabled Gulf War veterans in Illinois and many more across the nation, already struggle with bureaucratic hold-ups that prevent them from obtaining the disability benefits they are entitled to and need to live and care for their families. Illinois veterans have been short-changed by the federal government more than veterans from any other State.
Here in Illinois, we recognize that thousands of veterans will be returning to our state over the coming years in need of health care and other medical services. Thousands more Gulf War veterans have already fallen through the cracks of a Federal VA disability benefits provision and healthcare system that has failed Illinois veterans.
In Illinois, we began addressing these issues from the beginning of this administration. By increasing the number of Veteran Service Officers by 50%, we ensured that every veteran in the state has access to assistance in filing his or her benefits claim.
We launched Veterans Care to help thousands of veterans in Illinois who currently earn too much to qualify for Veterans Administration Healthcare, but cannot afford to purchase health insurance in the private market. Veterans Care is another example of our state stepping up to the plate when the federal government leaves veterans behind. The federal government has been consistently cutting off veterans’ health care since 2003, despite a growing need for health services as thousands of veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, the Bush Administration cut off health care for thousands of veterans making as little as $25,000 a year. Over the past three years, this has prevented one million veterans, who this year make as little as $26,903 a year, from enrolling in VHA health care.
We have recently expanded two of our Veterans’ Homes to take care of severely disabled veterans, and launched a pilot program that will become a national model for dealing with homeless veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues.
If the federal government won’t look out for the needs of our veterans, then the Land of Lincoln will step up. But in light of the Institute of Medicine report, we urge your department to commission a thorough study on the pressing health needs returning veterans face, and to outline specific plans to expand coverage and treatment to our veterans.
They deserve no less.
Rod R. Blagojevich,
Under the leadership of Gov. Blagojevich and Lt. Gov. Quinn, the State of Illinois has made it a priority to help the state’s veterans, especially at a time when they have been left behind by the federal government. Initiatives undertaken since 2003 include:
PROTECTING VETERANS AND THEIR FAMILIES
The Governor has signed into law numerous pieces of legislation helping veterans and members of the military, including:
- Senate Bill 916, which protects military personnel and their families against the inadvertent loss of health insurance after a tour of duty or an honorable discharge from military service.
- The “Let Them Rest in Peace Act”, which shields grieving military families from protests during funerals and memorial services of fallen soldiers. The law requires protesters to stay at least 200 feet away from family and friends as they mourn soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.
- Legislation punishing individuals who falsely claim to be decorated war heroes. The new law creates criminal charges and imposes penalties on individuals falsely representing themselves as recipients of various military honors, including the Purple Heart, the Congressional Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Navy Cross, the Air Force Cross, the Silver Star and the Bronze Star.
- An amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Acts, protecting Illinois veterans from discrimination in employment and housing. Under the new law, military status now includes a veteran of the Armed Forces of the United States, a reserve component of the Armed Forces of the United States, the Illinois Army National Guard and the Illinois Air National Guard.
- A law strengthening consumer protections for active military members under the Illinois Patriot Plan. The new law imposes penalties on companies for offenses such as canceling life insurance policies or turning off heat while soldiers are deployed.
- The Illinois Military Families Relief Fund Act, which established a trust fund allowing the families of Guard members and reservists to receive emergency financial grants and general financial support, helping make up the decline in household income that occurs when a wage-earner is called up to service. Since August of 2003, the Fund ha paid out over $3.8 million to over 6,800 families, and 25 other states have molded similar programs after Illinois.
EXPANDING CARE AND TREATMENT OF VETERANS
Gov. Blagojevich and Lt. Governor Quinn jointly designed Veterans Care, a landmark health insurance program aimed at providing access to affordable, comprehensive health care to thousands of veterans across Illinois. Veterans Care will help up to 9,000 veterans in Illinois who currently earn too much to qualify for Veterans Administration Healthcare (VHA) but cannot afford to purchase health insurance in the private market.
Blagojevich Administration officials recently broke ground on a building that will house a landmark pilot program to help provide housing and supportive services for 15 disabled, homeless Illinois veterans at the state’s Veterans’ Home in Manteno. The pilot program will serve as a national model for how to overcome challenges in providing permanent housing for homeless and disabled veterans, including veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and will help Illinois lead the nation in preparing for the likely increase in mental health problems among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last May, top officials from Governor Rod R. Blagojevich’s administration broke ground on a new 80-bed addition to the LaSalle Veterans’ Home. Gov. Blagojevich directed $13 million to build the 60,000-square-foot unit that will allow the facility to serve dozens more of the state’s disabled veterans. The expansion will allow the home to admit 40 residents into the Alzheimer’s unit and 40 more into the skilled care unit, as well as hire dozens of additional employees.
LOOKING OUT FOR FAMILIES OF ILLINOIS SOLDIERS CURRENTLY ON ACTIVE DUTY.
Thanks to the leadership of Lt. Gov. Quinn, currently deployed service members and their families have a resource with important and timely information about the rights and benefits they’re entitled to. The Lt. Governor’s “Operation Home Front” website – www.OperationHomeFront.org
– has received nearly 18 million hits since it was launched in April, 2003.