Opinion: Poverello program proves Medicaid’s worth to struggling veterans

Jill Bonny

As the daughter of a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and the director of veteran services at the Poverello Center, I have been surrounded by military service members my whole life. Through personal and professional experience, I know that not all former service members come back home to stable jobs, consistent paychecks, or a ready-made support system within their families and communities. Returning to civilian life after years of military service is a difficult transition – to say the least.

Jack came to the Poverello Center and enrolled in the Housing Montana Heroes transitional housing program for veterans experiencing homelessness.  He was mentally broken when he arrived. He had been active duty in the military for several years, had seen, and experienced more than enough trauma.

Because there were no services offered to him in the military to treat the symptoms of his trauma, he chose to self-medicate. Even though this man had served his country and risked his life for many years, he was only allowed a less than honorable discharge and was left with no benefits as a veteran. Luckily, he qualified for Medicaid and we could help him access mental health services.

Now Jack is doing well, he is actively accessing mental and physical health care, he is housed, and he has successfully had his discharge upgraded which has resulted in access to VA benefits. This would not have been possible without Medicaid. Jack’s access to mental health services was a vital piece in his accomplishments.

Comprehensive health care services are especially important for veterans because, like Jack, many of them suffer from unique, and sometimes serious or complicated, health issues as a result of their time serving our country.

Even though our country has made a commitment to care for our veterans by providing them with comprehensive health coverage through the Veterans Health Administration (VA), many people don’t know that not all veterans are eligible to receive health insurance through the VA. And even those who are eligible may not always be able to access care. Thirty percent of the homeless veterans we serve at the Poverello Center in the veteran transitional housing programs do not qualify for health care or mental health care benefits through the VA.

As a state, if we want to genuinely commit to doing everything we can for our veterans, we need to commit to continuing Medicaid expansion. My colleagues and I attended the Medicaid expansion bill hearings for HB 425 and HB 658 in March. We supported Rep. Caferro’s bill, HB 425, but it was tabled in the House Human Services Committee.

HB 658, sponsored by Rep Buttrey, was amended in the same committee. I support the amended HB 658 because it contains language that will exempt those that are working or face barriers to work from new reporting requirements. Montanans who face chronic homelessness – like those we serve in transitional housing – will be exempt from the bill’s requirements. This will allow those who served and are struggling with serious health issues to focus on getting healthy and housed rather than worrying about filling out complicated paperwork.

All veterans should have access to quality, affordable health care. No veteran should ever fall through the cracks. One of the best ways Montana can make sure that’s true for our veterans is to continue Medicaid expansion. I urge Montana’s state Senators to vote in favor of this bi-partisan solution and continue a program that is working for our state and our veterans.

Jill Bonny is the director of veteran services at the Poverello Center.