Illinois veterans lacking benefits

By Jonathan Jacobson

A few weeks ago, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth announced her plans to make changes to Veterans Care, a state health care program that began in September 2006 to support Illinois veterans.

But Thursday, Jessica Woodward, a VA spokeswoman, confirmed that no new changes are taking place, despite Duckworth’s recent declarations about inadequacies with the Veterans Care program.

At a Nov. 16 policy luncheon at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs in Springfield, Duckworth suggested that, of the tens of thousands of Illinois veterans, only about 100 have signed up for Veterans Care.

“The state of Illinois is going to stand up and make sure we take care of our veterans,” she told the gathering. “Especially when they start falling through the cracks because the federal VA system simply is either unprepared or not sufficiently funded.”

Woodward, though, in an e-mail interview, suggested that the VA has changed its position.

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    “We are looking at ways to improve programs, but as of now, there is no new plan in place,” Woodward wrote in an e-mail interview.

    The program, in its current form, has a number of limitations that could be keeping enrollment down. Veterans have to be between the ages of 19 and 65, must be uninsured for the last six months, cannot live within 50 miles of a federal VA facility and cannot be eligible for other state-subsidized insurance like Family Care.

    There are also income restrictions: The annual income of a family of four living in Champaign County, for example, cannot exceed about $60,000.

    Duckworth has noted examples of inadequacies in the program, such as one that applies to Illinois National Guard and Reserve members. They drill one weekend every month, during which time they have access to health care. These two days of coverage exempt them entirely from Veterans Care.

    Dr. Lorens Helmchen, an assistant professor of health policy and administration at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said he was surprised to see the state even try to step in and cover for the federal government’s shortcomings.

    “Neither one likes to be saddled with any additional health care liabilities,” he said.

    Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora, a veteran herself, told the Springfield Journal-Register that she was excited about Duckworth’s proposed changes when she made them, but said that she believed the state could do more.

    She said she wanted an existing scratch ticket lottery game called Veterans Cash, created by Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn to help veterans, pay for the program.

    “I am hoping to pay for this through (the lottery game),” Chapa LaVia said. “I don’t think this is going to open up the floodgate, but it is going to cost more.”

    Duckworth, a double amputee who was injured when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, ran for Congress last year but lost and was later appointed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich to run Illinois’ Department of Veterans Affairs.

    “The goal of the Veterans Care program has been, and still is, to make health care more accessible and affordable for Veterans,” Woodward said. “We are always researching ways we could possibly update the Veterans Care program to serve more veterans.”