The hidden economic costs of the war in Iraq will not be found in the immediate treatment of the wounded or in increases to military death benefits. As expensive or labor-intensive as these might be, the largest monetary costs will involve the long-term care of thousands of severely and irrevocably damaged veterans; and these costs will only increase as the years pass. We are going to have to care and pay for a very large number of patients with what are, in any honest prognosis, lifelong disabilities….
Every wounded soldier will soon become a veteran and will–unless he or she is old enough for Medicare or miraculously lucky enough to find a managed-health-care company that will take on patients with extreme preexisting conditions–be forced to receive any ongoing care through Veterans Affairs. There is little to suggest that the VA–an overburdened and underfunded system–can handle the wounded from Iraq once they are released from Department of Defense care…..
The average wait for a VA decision on an initial claim for disability benefits is 165 days; to rule on an appeal of one of its decisions, the VA takes, on average, three years. (In the last ten years, some 13,700 veterans have died as they were waiting for their cases to be resolved.) In Minneapolis the waiting period for an orthopedic appointment at a VA hospital can be more than six months, and patients there have been told to expect a further decrease in services over the next budget period. The VA needs more money, and its claims and appeals process needs an overhaul. Yet this administration hasn’t adequately increased funding to the VA to deal with the influx of new veterans from Iraq. Of the 290,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who had left active duty by January 2005, 22 percent have already sought treatment from the VA; more than a quarter of them were diagnosed with some form of mental disorder. At this time, more than 1 million have served in these wars. The GAO recently found that six of seven VA medical facilities it visited “may not be able to meet” increased demand for PTSD. Hundreds of billions have been given to the Pentagon to pay for this war; to pay for the war’s aftermath, VA discretionary funding for 2006 is to be increased by only one third of 1 percent.
As a side note, the long-time rap on the VA—that it’s a backwater of medicine—is really no longer true; as Philip Longman reported in the Washington Monthly, the government-owned and -run health care system is one of the best in the country. Still, the strain on VA by incoming veterans will be tremendous, and one of the hidden costs of war that never really get acknowledged.