VA facing huge bill for injured soldiers care

The Veterans Affairs healthcare system is likely facing a huge bill in the coming decades to treat soldiers severely wounded in action during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, Kaiser Health News reported.

Altogether, those soldiers cost the VA $2.8 billion last year, about 4.5 percent of its total budget. Their costs are expected to rise to more than $3.3 billion this year.

Among the factors driving up the costs: High survival rates of soldiers wounded in combat, the fact many lost their limbs and longer tours of duty. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are also using VA services at a higher rate than veterans of prior conflicts: Currently, 56 percent of them use VA services, and the number is expected to grow nearly 10 percent in 2013 and another 7.2 percent in 2014.

Soldiers with multiple traumatic injuries are also extraordinarily costly: The VA pays on average $136,000 a year to take care of them, according to Kaiser Health News.

The aging of the population is expected to compound the issue as many develop chronic conditions such as diabetes.

"Medical costs peak decades later," Linda Bilmes, a professor in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, told Kaiser Health News regarding the aging of injured vets. "And that drives a lot of the long-term costs of the war, which we're not looking at the moment, but which will hit in 30, 40, 50 years from now."

The need to confront the huge costs of this group of veterans comes at the same time the VA is struggling to shrink the backlog of applications for disability benefits, suggesting it could be overwhelmed by the task in the long-term.

In order to mitigate these costs, the VA should focus on providing communities of support for injured veterans, and think of injuries holistically. Clinicians should consider post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, as a direct link to poor health behaviors, such as smoking and alcohol abuse, according to the article.

To learn more:
- read the Kaiser Health News article