LANSING - Only 30 percent of Michigan veterans apply for health care benefits and only 19 percent use them.
Michigan lags behind other states where veterans enroll at a rate of 40 percent and use their benefits at a rate of 25 percent.
"This is simply unacceptable," Gov. Rick Snyder said, citing those statistics in a recent special message on health and wellness.
The Jacobetti Center for Veterans in Marquette is seen in this file photo. Gov. Rick Snyder wants Michigan veterans to take greater advantage of the health care services that are available. (Journal file photo)
He set awareness of access to health care for veterans as a goal of his administration.
Many veterans are unaware of the extent of coverage provided by the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, said Robert Weiss, the adjutant quartermaster of Michigan's Veterans of Foreign Wars office. He gave an example of a man who served in Korea on a ship that had asbestos. After filing with Veterans Affairs, he received full coverage for his asbestosis, a lung disease caused by breathing in asbestos fibers.
"His kids were paying for all of his medications and they couldn't even buy food, they didn't have any money left over after all that," Weiss said. "How many of these people out there don't know that? They don't know they had all the problems with the asbestos in the ships."
Weiss said veterans who don't join associations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion are less likely to know about enrolling for health care.
Receiving health care is dependent on enrolling, so Veterans Affairs is trying to get that message out, said Bradley Nelson, the director of public affairs at the Oscar V. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Iron Mountain.
"I'm a veteran, I retired from the Coast Guard in 2006, and I wasn't aware of the health care benefits until I really started working with the VA," he said.
A number of other factors contribute to the low numbers of veterans health care recipients, Weiss said. Manufacturing-based states like Ohio and Pennsylvania have similar figures because many veterans receive pensions and other benefits from employers like GM or Chrysler.
Snyder cited a nine-month lag in filing claims with the federal Veterans Affairs Regional Office in Detroit. Regional offices across the country are slow in processing, but Weiss said Michigan's delay is worse than most.
Lack of awareness about health care remains the crucial problem. Snyder called on the state's veterans health care providers to continue their push to educate veterans about their benefits options.
Nelson said his medical center gives talks and appears at county fairs to promote applying for health care. Part of the promotion is informing veterans about who can receive health care and what exactly is covered, he said. Any health issues that came up while veterans were in uniform could be addressed, not just injuries or mental disorders suffered from combat.
In recent years, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans have been briefed on the benefits available to them after serving, said Capt. Aaron Jenkins, the director of public affairs with the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Each county in Michigan has a central office dealing with veterans' affairs, with a map on the veterans affairs website indicating each county's headquarters.
For increasing access, the governor emphasized the need for conveniently-located veterans' medical centers. He highlighted the progress on this front, saying a new clinic opened this year in Cadillac, and another will be opened soon in Mackinaw City.
Existing clinics in Marquette and Iron Mountain are working on increasing access for veterans. Due to its rural location, Nelson's medical center is expanding home-based primary care and providing transportation to take veterans to the nearest clinic. Of the more than 30 clinics in Michigan, seven are in the Upper Peninsula.
The Marquette outreach clinic expanded three years ago, allowing for increased services, said Dr. Kent Koehn, a clinical psychologist there. One such measure adopted there and at other Upper Peninsula veterans' clinics is the use of telehelp technology, which allows patients to talk to doctors remotely via camera. Nelson said the technology is useful for talking to specialists who work as far away as Milwaukee, saving veterans the time and money of traveling for an appointment.
Koehn said Marquette's clinic has reached out to the community, with programs for homeless veterans and veterans with major mental illnesses.
"They're actually out in the community, going to veterans' homes or finding places for veterans to live," he said.