Lawmakers continue debate on whether new health care bill will cost vets
WASHINGTON — Following the lead of House Democrats, four Democrats in the Senate on Tuesday decried a provision in the GOP’s health care bill that they said would make medical treatment more expensive for millions of veterans.
After the American Health Care Act was first introduced in March, Democrats quickly spoke out against a measure that would strip the possibility for tax credits from millions of veterans who are eligible for health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs but don’t use VA services. The measure remained in the legislation that passed the House last week by a vote of 217-213, with no Democratic support. Now that it’s moved onto the Senate, the four Democrats pleaded Tuesday with Republican senators to maintain tax credit eligibility for veterans.
“They knew about the flaw… we told them about the flaw, and they went back and rewrote the bill and put it right back in,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. “They knowingly tried to raise taxes on veterans and put veterans out on the streets without health care. The question left is, what will the Senate Republicans do?”
Duckworth, who served in Iraq as an Army helicopter pilot, was joined Tuesday by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Tester is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee -- a spot Blumenthal occupied last year. Blumenthal served in the Marine Corps Reserve, and Nelson is an Army veteran.
The portion of the bill that Democrats seized on is a measure that exempts veterans who are eligible for government health care options from receiving tax credits to assist with the cost of private insurance.
Chris Jacobs, the founder of policy consulting firm Juniper Research Group, estimated seven million veterans were eligible for VA health care but didn’t use it. Duckworth said those veterans choosing not to use VA services could live in rural areas far from a VA facility, or are eligible for VA care only for certain, service-related conditions.
On the House floor last week, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., argued Democrats were “flat-out wrong.”
“Nothing in this bill changes how veterans are treated under the law. Nothing,” said Roe, who is also an Army veteran and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “The American Health Care Act in no way affects a veterans’ ability to access tax credits.”
During debate on the bill, Republicans argued the IRS already has rules allowing veterans eligibility to tax credits, and that its inclusion in the bill would’ve been redundant.
The IRS created the rules in 2012 to address how tax credits would be handled under the Affordable Care Act. It’s unclear whether those rules would apply if the act were repealed and replaced by another health care law.
Verna Jones, executive director of the American Legion, which represents 2.2 million veterans, said Monday that she was looking into the issue but hadn’t gotten a clear answer yet on how veterans would be affected if the legislation were implemented.
Another major veterans organization, Paralyzed Veterans of America, sent a letter before the House vote to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., asking them to reject the new bill. The group cited the tax credit denial as a reason and said it would have a particularly adverse effect on veterans with disabilities.
“Disagreement continues over whether eligible veterans will receive tax credits under the new law or whether the new law will actually prohibit it once enacted,” Paralyzed Veterans of America President Al Kovach Jr. said in a statement. “Our Congress needs to take the lessons we learned from unclear provisions in the Affordable Care Act and ensure any new law is better than the status quo for veterans and dependents who have been largely overlooked.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the original version of the American Health Care Act in March would have increased the number of uninsured people by 24 million by 2026. The Congressional Budget Office has not issued updated estimates on the new version of the bill. Tester argued Tuesday that the bill would put pressure on rural hospitals and could lead to fewer options for veterans seeking care in the private sector.
The new bill would allow states to opt out of a current requirement that insurers charge people the same regardless of whether they have pre-existing conditions. Blumenthal said Tuesday that he was concerned about post-traumatic stress disorder being classified as a pre-existing condition.
“In my view, it’s an insult to veterans who have served and bear the invisible wounds of war,” Blumenthal said. “This measure is the height of hypocrisy. It ought to be a call to action for every veteran and every veteran service organization across the U.S.”
VA Secretary David Shulkin said during an interview on the Rita Cosby Show last week that the new bill could lead to more veterans who are using private health care to seek treatment at the VA.