MITCHELL, S.D. — Federal policies denying medical benefits to incarcerated veterans are shifting the cost of health care to already strapped counties, says Fall River County Commission Chairman Michael Ortner.
Ortner, a Hot Springs attorney, was recently named chairman of the Veterans and Military Service Committee of the South Dakota Association of County Commissioners.
Davison County Commissioner Denny Kiner, who retired in 1995 as a lieutenant colonel in the South Dakota Army National Guard, was named committee vice chairman.
“If you can bond out of jail, the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t take away your veteran’s medical benefits until after you’re convicted,” Ortner said, “but if you’re too poor to bond out, you lose those benefits and counties are saddled with paying your medical expenses.”
Ortner — speaking as an attorney — said he believes the VA policy reverses the presumption of innocence that is a basic tenet of our legal system.
He had no statistics to show how much pre-conviction jail time is costing South Dakota counties, “but nationwide, that has to be a very significant number,” he said.
The reduction of veteran benefits is a federal issue that is decided at the national, and not the state, level, said Steve Harding, deputy secretary of the South Dakota Department of the Military and Veterans Affairs.
Veterans are eligible for medical, family and educational benefits, so they don’t necessarily lose all benefits if they are jailed.
Charles Claussen, director of the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs, explained that veteran pension and disability compensation benefits are either stopped or reduced on the 61st day of incarceration.
Medical reimbursements, however, stop immediately for incarcerated vets, whether or not the veteran is found guilty of a crime. Benefits are not reduced for veterans who are on probation because they are not considered to be incarcerated, Claussen said.
“The biggest reason for the reduction is that once veterans are incarcerated they become the responsibility of whoever has them in jail, whether it be the county or the state,” Claussen said.
Once incarcerated, a veteran is unable to go to a VA hospital and get necessary, and sometimes expensive, prescriptions, so the counties are forced to pick up those costs.
Ortner said the South Dakota’s Veterans Department initially tried to buck the ruling denying medical benefits, but it eventually was forced to comply with federal policy.
He recalled one instance in which his county dodged $200,000 to $300,000 in prescription costs for one veteran who required costly medications.
“We were able to talk the judge into letting the guy go on personal recognizance so he could go the VA and get the medical care he earned through his military service.”
Elsewhere in the U.S., counties have occasionally furloughed prisoners so they can get the medical treatment they require through the VA.
Ortner is seeking support from the National Association of Counties to fight what he believes is an unfair VA policy.
Ortner said NACO has backed his resolution, which calls on Congress to adopt legislation that requires the VA to provide medical care up until the time a veteran is actually convicted of a crime.
“NACO has adopted that resolution unanimously every year for the last four years, but it has still not gotten through Congress,” Ortner said.
“The VA has a very strong lobby, unfortunately,” he said.
Ortner said the resolution will be among the topics discussed by the new SDACC Veterans and Military Service Committee during the March 20-21 SDACC spring workshop meeting in Pierre