Addressing veterans’ unmet needs can improve life expectancy
Special to Stars and Stripes September 27, 2023
As an Air Force reservist, I understand firsthand the difficulties veterans and military families face when transitioning from military to civilian life. Many veterans grapple with transitional stress, including connecting with a new community, finding an employer that understands their skill set, seeking treatment for mental health needs, or finding affordable housing. These factors play a huge role in contributing to veteran life expectancy, and the data shows there’s more work to do.
The United States is home to an estimated 16.5 million veterans, making up 6.4% of the nation’s adult population. Veterans’ average lifespan can vary due to factors including when they served, their exposure to combat or other hazardous environments, and access to health care. Veterans’ average age at death is 67, almost a decade younger than the national average of 76.4 years old.
Veterans face a range of challenges after military service, stemming from their transition to civilian life and the hardships they’ve had in the military. To overcome these challenges, veterans and our civilian counterparts must become more familiar with drivers of health (DoH), the conditions in which people live, work and age. All influence health outcomes.
Social support networks play a crucial role in maintaining mental and physical health. Veterans who lack strong social connections experience higher levels of stress, depression and other mental health issues, which can contribute to decreased life expectancy. The suicide rate for veterans is 1.5 times higher than the general population. Social support can help protect against suicidal behavior. Studies treat social support as a single construct, but it takes collaboration across sectors — health care, government and wellness services — to improve our veteran population’s health and welfare. We must provide the structure for health care, government, nonprofit and private-sector companies to address DoH and decrease the burden of providing whole-person health.
Access to health care
Only a subset of veterans are entitled to health care from the Veterans Health Administration System (VA), determined by their length of service (20 years or medically retired) or disability status. The biggest issue is most veterans don’t use the benefits they are eligible for due to a lack of knowledge. Veterans who fall into that category must manage traditional health care where military service is poorly understood, which leads to inadequate mental health support and lack of access to preventive services.
Teaching veterans how to navigate their benefits helps improve their access to care and connect them to critical resources. Making these connections requires a holistic approach, and historically siloed sectors must collaborate to enhance veterans’ access to resources. Take Easter Seals Greater Houston, for example, which serves current service members, veterans and their families in Harris County, Texas, and surrounding counties. Their goal is to provide an easy point of entry for service members, veterans and military-connected families to a range of behavioral health services. They’ve served over 730 veterans and managed over 1,600 cases, providing behavioral health, financial counseling, therapeutic programming, service animals and more through cross-sector collaboration software.
Behavioral, social and environmental factors — including socioeconomic status, race, nutrition, housing security and transportation — contribute to 80–90% of a population’s health outcomes. Traumatic experiences from combat-related events can lead to severe mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, which leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms, substance abuse and health problems.
Successfully supporting veterans means institutions identifying negative DoH must have the resources to provide adequate support. Many health care providers already screen patients for DoH needs; they must ensure their screenings are strengths-based and integrated with referrals to community-based resources.
Veterans’ locations impact their access to health care, resources and opportunities. Rural veterans have limited access to health care facilities and a shortage of health care providers and social services programs.
Accessing health care in rural areas is primarily influenced by infrastructure, availability of health care providers and socioeconomic conditions. To improve rural health outcomes, citizens need equitable, any-door access to both health and social care. To move the needle, we must realize access to medical care makes up roughly 30% of an individual’s overall health — their socioeconomic status impacts the other 70%. Identifying and making resources available for those in need through coordinated care ensures people receive the help they need.
Addressing veterans’ unmet needs requires a comprehensive approach involving the VA, community organizations, policymakers and health care providers. When these organizations collaborate in veteran-centric care, veterans receive wrap-around support that enhances their quality of life and life expectancy.
Dan Brillman is CEO and founder of Unite Us, a software company that brings together health care providers, government agencies, health plans and nonprofits to coordinate and ensure people receive resources and social services.