The Elder Law Forum

The Elder Law Forum by Professor Michael Myers Editor's Note: The Elder Law Forum is a public service of the University of South Dakota School of Law, an extension of the SENIOR LEGAL HOTLINE available at no cost to persons 60 and older at 605-677-6343 and mmyers@usd.edu during regular business hours. The Elder Law Forum delivers information and educational material by radio, a weekly newspaper column, and Law School research papers placed on the USD School of Law Web site. Professor Myers teaches Elder Law at the School of Law.

2,400 South Dakotan

Veterans on VA

Waiting List

"It seems to me the federal government is two-faced: When they want you to fight they pay a lot of attention to you. But now that I am old and sick it seems they want to get rid of me."

With that introduction, an 81-year-old World War II veteran living on an $806 per month Social Security check and residing alone in a "shack of a house," called on the USD Senior Legal Hotline (1-800-747-1895) to complain about a perceived indifference to his condition by the staff of an area Veterans Administration hospital.

His wife had died two years ago. He had sustained several heart attacks, two of them serious. He had an appointment at a VA hospital next week and wanted to confirm his eligibility for care. "Aren't they required to provide me with care?" he asked.

"They are," I advised. "You are already in the system, and they are obligated to give you care." And in that regard, I told him, "You are fortunate." Currently there are some 2,400 South Dakota veterans, already deemed eligible for VA health care, who are on its "waiting list." They will be seen as funding and staffing permits.

"VA hospitals throughout the country are packed," I was told by a VA spokesperson. "Congress has limited our funding and there is only so much we can do." Veterans seeking treatment for a "service-connected" disability or illness have priority and in effect are moved to the front of the waiting list. But the overwhelming amount of VA care is furnished to veterans with medical problems associated with aging and unrelated to their military service.

Veterans who have Medicare, but no supplemental insurance, are attracted to the VA because of its limited copays for care and prescription drugs. For example, the copay for a visit to a primary care physician is $50. And if a veteran is seriously ill, a triage system provides priority on a case-by-case basis.

Eligibility for non-service-connected conditions has been based on an established income and property "means test": Less than $80,000 in property. Less than $24,600 gross annual income.

However, this category � applicants seeking treatment for a non-service-connected condition � are no longer eligible for care, even if they meet the means test. This category, known as "Priority Eight," has been closed to any veteran whose application was not submitted on or prior to January 17, 2003. VA hospitals across the country are currently operating on limited funding pursuant to a congressional "continuing resolution."

My Hotline caller may be right. Recruiting a soldier appears to have priority over providing health care to that same soldier 50 years later.

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