Veterans Day Marks Time To Honor Alabama Vets and Close the Coverage Gap

November 11, 2023

ANNISTON, AL –  When I was in college in the 1960s, I studied abroad in Great Britain. While there, I got sick. I walked into their National Health Service, got treated and was sent away healthy. There were no bills or financial hassle. It was a stark contrast to my personal experience back home in the U.S., where my parents had drained their finances trying to cover medical costs related to a catastrophic health issue.

That experience shaped my lifelong dedication to recognize the importance of health care. My 30 years serving in the U.S. Navy furthered my passion. Once out of service, my brothers and sisters in uniform are too often left behind when it comes to health care. That’s why on this Veterans Day, I am calling on Gov. Kay Ivey to close the coverage gap in Alabama.

I find many misconceptions about our country’s health coverage for veterans. Through volunteer work with my church and other community organizations, I have met several veterans who don’t have access to care or coverage. Most people don’t realize, to qualify for care at the VA, with rare exceptions, you must have a condition you can prove dates back to your active-duty service. In fact, only about 20 percent of insured veterans get coverage through the VA. Meanwhile, thousands of my fellow veterans right here in Alabama need help. They are falling into the coverage gap, where they don’t qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford or access coverage on their own. 400,000 veterans are living without health coverage, with more than half in states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid. That’s why Alabama needs to act.

When I talk about the need for Medicaid expansion for our veterans, I think of one man I met through my volunteer work. He had been discharged from the Navy for mental health reasons, but the Navy decided he must have had that condition before he enlisted. So, they discharged him without benefits. However, his service had aggravated his condition. As a result, when he got home, his family kicked him out. He was homeless, trying to make ends meet by working part-time odd jobs. He couldn’t get a roof over his head, but the state still said he “made too much” to qualify for Medicaid. He is one of the 300,000 Alabamians that Medicaid expansion would help.

Veterans also often work jobs in the trades that don’t provide health insurance with employment, while being higher risk for unique and complex injuries or conditions due to their time in service. In fact, a congressional study done in 2014 found only 40 percent of veterans were enrolled in the VA health system. For others who are lucky enough to qualify for VA care, the hospitals are often hard to reach. For example, if you live in Anniston like I do and need care at a VA hospital, you have to find a way to travel to Birmingham. Although a free van runs from Oxford, departure and return times can make it unusable for some veterans who don’t have their own transportation.

On this Veterans Day, let’s pledge to make it the last that Alabama veterans have to live without expanded access to Medicaid in our state. We call on Gov. Ivey to expand Medicaid now and give my fellow brothers and sisters in uniform the dignity of health care access they deserve.

This was an op-ed that originally appeared in the Calhoun Journal on November 11, 2023. It was authored by Jim Williams, a retired Navy Captain, in partnership with ACS CAN.