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OPINION

Help more vets, others save for medical expenses

By JASON STICHA | Special to Stars and Stripes | Published: July 21, 2020

Almost 5 million veterans have a service-connected disability. As a disabled Navy veteran, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to save and pay for the costly medical expenses that accompany living with a disability. This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a monument that has changed my life, and the lives of millions of others. Perhaps the best way we can celebrate is by passing the ABLE Age Adjustment Act — legislation that furthers the ADA’s goal of ensuring that individuals with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as their fellow Americans.

Toward the end of my Navy career, someone close to me pointed out that I walked around with my hands balled into fists. At the time, I chalked it up to an old military habit, borne out of standing at attention. In hindsight, this was an early clue that I was part of the estimated 11% to 20% of veterans who experience post-traumatic stress disorder. My clenched fists were not the result of some ingrained boot camp exercise, nor a personal quirk. It was an unconscious bodily response to perceived danger — a “fight or flight” reaction, if you will. I always chose to fight.

Before I knew about my PTSD, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Because I was still on active duty when diagnosed, I am thankfully entitled to VA health care. However, even with my VA health care, I had been paying thousands of dollars for medications. At least a dozen times since my diabetes diagnosis, refills of critical supplies have taken weeks longer than estimated to complete. I have subsequently paid out-of-pocket at a regular pharmacy to get the bare minimum supplies I need. The reality is that, as a diabetic, maintaining my quality of life is expensive.

Earlier this year, in the midst of this medical financial pressure, the reality of my PTSD became clear. While watching TV one night, I experienced something that I can only describe to be akin to my mind going into overdrive and my body failing to keep up. I now know this all too familiar tinge of danger to be PTSD.

That night, I texted a friend asking if he knew any doctors in the area that accept Tricare (which is often harder than one might think). He gave me a name, I made the call, and was finally able to get the help I need.

The cost of these various types of care I need quickly add up. But I am one of the lucky individuals who has access to something that helps — an ABLE account. Passed in 2014, the ABLE Act helps many Americans, as well as eligible veterans with disabilities, reduce the financial strain that accompanies living with disabilities through tax-advantaged savings accounts for qualified expenses. This has been life-changing. I am now able to pay for my medical expenses without the fear of financial strain, or of losing any public benefits.

For many other veterans like myself, ABLE accounts are essential to help pay for medical expenses that are not necessarily covered by VA health care. As I’ve learned over and over, the Department of Veterans Affairs often covers some of the costs associated with veterans’ health needs, but not everything. While my struggles aren’t over, my ability to use an ABLE account to pay for health services has changed my life in a powerful way.

Unfortunately, many veterans with disabilities are not eligible for ABLE accounts due to an age cutoff specified in the law. Currently, only those who acquire their disability prior to their 26th birthday are ABLE-eligible. This leaves out an immense portion of the older, disabled community, notably the many veterans who acquire a disability like PTSD later in life. The ABLE Age Adjustment Act has the potential to change this by raising the ABLE Act’s age of onset requirement from 26 to 46.

My story is representative of the countless veterans facing heightened financial pressure due to disabilities following their service. From PTSD treatment to diabetes testing strips and more, ABLE accounts can help make it possible for disabled veterans to maintain their quality of life amid increased health and financial burdens.

So, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the ADA, the best way to honor the legacy of this monumental piece of legislation is by doing the additional work necessary to ensure that a greater number of Americans with disabilities are given the opportunity to save. We can do this by passing the ABLE Age Adjustment Act.

Jason Sticha is a freelance writer and U.S. Navy veteran, who currently lives in Chicago.

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