As the nation takes a day to memorialize its military dead, those who are living are facing a deadly risk that has nothing to do with war or conflict: the coronavirus.
Different groups face different degrees of danger from the pandemic, from the elderly who are experiencing deadly outbreaks in nursing homes to communities of color with higher infection and death rates. Veterans are among the most hard-hit, with heightened health and economic threats from the pandemic. These veterans face homelessness, lack of health care, delays in receiving financial support and even death.
I have spent the past four years studying veterans with substance use and mental health disorders who are in the criminal justice system. This work revealed gaps in health care and financial support for veterans, even though they have the best publicly funded benefits in the country.
Here are eight ways the pandemic threatens veterans:
1. Age and other vulnerabilities
In 2017, veterans’ median age was 64, their average age was 58 and 91% were male. The largest group served in the Vietnam era, where 2.8 million veterans were exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant linked to cancer.
Younger veterans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were exposed to dust storms, oil fires and burn pits with numerous toxins, and perhaps as a consequence have high rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.
Age and respiratory illnesses are both risk factors for COVID-19 mortality. As of May 22, there have been 12,979 people under Veterans Administration care with COVID-19, of whom 1,100 have died.
2. Dangerous residential facilities
Veterans needing end-of-life care, those with cognitive disabilities or those needing substance use treatment often live in crowded VA or state-funded residential facilities.
State-funded “soldiers’ homes” are notoriously starved for money and staff. The horrific situation at the soldiers’ home in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where more than 79 veteran residents have died from a COVID-19 outbreak, illustrates the risk facing the veterans in residential homes.
3. Benefits unfairly denied
When a person transitions from active military service to become a veteran, they receive a Certificate of Discharge or Release. This certificate provides information about the circumstances of the discharge or release. It includes characterizations such as “honorable,” “other than honorable,” “bad conduct” or “dishonorable.” These are crucial distinctions, because that status determines whether the Veterans Administration will give them benefits.
Research shows that some veterans with discharges that limit their benefits have PTSD symptoms, military sexual trauma or other behaviors related to military stress. Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have disproportionately more of these negative discharges than veterans from other eras, for reasons still unclear.
The Veterans Administration frequently and perhaps unlawfully denies benefits to veterans with “other than honorable” discharges.
Many veterans have requested upgrades to their discharge status. There is a significant backlog of these upgrade requests, and the pandemic will add to it, further delaying access to health care and other benefits.
4. Diminished access to health care
Dental surgery, routine visits and elective surgeries at Veterans Administration medical centers have been postponed since mid-March. VA hospitals are understaffed – just before the pandemic, the VA reported 43,000 staff vacancies out of more than 400,000 health care staff positions. Access to health care will be even more difficult when those medical centers finally reopen because they may have far fewer workers than they need.
As of May 4, 2020, 2,250 VA health care workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and thousands of health care workers are under quarantine. The VA is asking doctors and nurses to come out of retirement to help already understaffed hospitals.
5. Mental health may get worse
An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day. A national task force is currently addressing this scourge.
But many outpatient mental health programs are on hold or being held virtually. Some residential mental health facilities have closed.
Under these conditions, the suicide rate for veterans may grow. Suicide hotline calls by veterans were up by 12% on March 22, just a few weeks into the crisis.
6. Complications for homeless veterans and those in the justice system
An estimated 45,000 veterans are homeless on any given night, and 181,500 veterans are in prison or jail. Thousands more are under court-supervised substance use and mental health treatment in veterans treatment courts. More than half of veterans involved with the justice system have either mental health problems or substance use disorders.
As residential facilities close to new participants, many veterans eligible to leave prison or jail have nowhere to go. They may stay incarcerated or become homeless.
Courts have moved online or ceased formal operations altogether, meaning no veteran charged with a crime can be referred to a treatment court. It is unclear whether those who were already participating in a treatment program will face delays graduating from court-supervised treatments.
Further, some veterans treatment courts still require participants to take drug tests. With COVID-19 circulating, those participants must put their health at risk to travel to licensed testing facilities.
7. Disability benefits delayed
In the pandemic’s epicenter in New York, tens of thousands of veterans should have access to VA benefits because of their low income – but don’t, so far.
The pandemic has exacerbated existing delays in finding veterans in need, filing their paperwork and waiting for decisions. Ryan Foley, an attorney in New York’s Legal Assistance Group, a nonprofit legal services organization, noted in a personal communication that these benefits are worth “tens of millions of dollars to veterans and their families” in the midst of a health and economic disaster.
All 56 regional Veterans Administration offices are closed to encourage social distancing. Compensation and disability evaluations, which determine how much money veterans can get, are usually done in person. Now, they must be done electronically, via telehealth services in which the veteran communicates with a health care provider via computer.
But getting telehealth up and running is taking time, adding to the longstanding VA backlog. Currently, more than 100,000 veterans wait more than 125 days for a decision. (That is what the VA defines as a backlog – anything less than 125 days is not considered a delay on benefit claims.)
8. Economic catastrophe
There are 1.2 million veteran employees in the five industries most severely affected by the economic fallout of the coronavirus.
A disproportionately high number of post-9/11 veterans live in some of the hardest-hit communities that depend on these industries. Veterans returning from overseas will face a dire economic landscape, with far fewer opportunities to integrate into civilian life with financial security.
In addition, severely disabled veterans living off of VA benefits were initially required to file a tax return to get stimulus checks. This initial filing requirement delayed benefits for severely disabled veterans by at least a month. The IRS finally changed the requirements after public outcry, given that many older and severely disabled veterans do not have access to computers or the technological skills to file electronically.
There are many social groups to pay attention to, all with their own problems to face during the pandemic. With veterans, many of the problems they face now existed long before the coronavirus arrived on U.S. shores.
But with the challenges posed by the situation today, veterans who were already lacking adequate benefits and resources are now in deeper trouble, and it will be harder to answer their needs.
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of a story that originally ran on April 16, 2020.
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