No question, Thomas Turner served his country.
The Rhode Island native sailed aboard seven different Navy submarines during a 30-year career as a Navy officer. He commanded a squadron of boomers at Kings Bay, Georgia, before retiring from the Navy as a captain in 1994. He lives in Bellevue after a second career in civilian work at U.S. Strategic Command.
All that time in uniform, however, did not qualify the 78-year-old for a COVID-19 shot at the Omaha VA Medical Center.
Turner hadn’t sought medical care from the VA before, but he called and made an appointment to get his shots. When he got there, though, clerks politely sent him away.
The reason? He earns too much money.
“I walked in the front door all fat, dumb and happy,” Turner said. “I was pretty much taken aback to be told to take a hike.”
The income limit varies by location and size of family, and it changes from year to year. In the Omaha-Council Bluffs area, an unmarried veteran must have an income below $53,625 (or $61,270 with a spouse or one dependent child) to qualify for medical care, according to the VA’s eligibility page.
In other parts of Nebraska and Iowa, the limits are as low as $44,165 and $50,435, according to the page.
“I was shocked, because I have used the GI bill for education, and I have a (VA) loan on my home,” said 75-year-old Larry Palmer of Omaha, who served four years in the Coast Guard during the 1960s. “Nothing was ever said that the benefits have been reduced.”
It isn't easy to talk to the Department of Veterans Affairs about the limits. A spokesman for the Omaha-based VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System referred questions to the VA’s press office in Washington, D.C. That office turned down The World-Herald's request to interview an expert on the eligibility rules, instead providing a brief statement and a link to the eligibility page on the VA’s website.
“Veterans are required to enroll with VA in order to receive health care. However, not all veterans are eligible to enroll in VA health care,” the statement said in part. “VA enrollees must meet certain eligibility requirements under current law, which may include income limits.”
The original idea, and still the core mission of VA health services, was to provide medical care to soldiers wounded in combat, especially those too poor to afford it.
“The VA is set up to take care of vulnerable veterans,” said Carrie Farmer, a senior policy researcher specializing in health care at the RAND Corp. “Who is eligible hasn’t changed in a long time.”
The VA assigns the highest priority to veterans with injuries or illnesses connected to their military service. The lowest priority goes to veterans without such disabilities and with the highest income — vets like Turner and Palmer.
Farmer said the priority groups are set up to give the VA flexibility over who it treats.
“There are more veterans than there are resources,” she said. “It allows the secretary (of Veterans Affairs) to move the needle up and down the priority groups in order to make sure there is access to care.”
The last major change, Farmer said, occurred shortly after the 9/11 terror attacks.
“It is a popular misconception that all vets can get care from the VA,” she said. “Whether it should be changed or not is a policy debate.”
That change could come soon, at least regarding the COVID vaccine.
Last week, both the House and the Senate unanimously passed the SAVE LIVES Act, which would allow the VA to vaccinate all veterans whether or not they are VA-eligible. Their spouses and caregivers could receive vaccines, too, along with family members taking part in the CHAMPVA program for vets who are 100% disabled.
The bill also asks the Department of Health and Human Services to give more vaccine doses to the VA.
“I think the VA needs to continue to press, whether it’s HHS or whoever it is, to get as many vaccines as possible,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, a co-sponsor of the bill, in an interview last week with the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. “We need to get it done quickly.”
The legislation will become law once it is signed by President Joe Biden.
As of Thursday, the VA had given at least one dose of the vaccine to 2.1 million veterans and VA employees. About 1.4 million have been fully vaccinated, including more than 23,000 through the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa system.
Palmer and Turner said they have received the vaccine elsewhere. But they agreed all veterans who served honorably ought to be able to receive a vaccine from the VA.
“I just figured it would be there if I needed it,” Turner said. “I’m not asking for a heart transplant. I’m just looking for a shot.”
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