Lifetime costs of healthcare for 9/11 vets could be staggering

Kelsey Hightower/News21

The wait for Maynard to walk again was worth it, he said. Now, he has three types of prostheses so he can walk, run and hike.

Jerral Hancock wakes up every night in Lancaster, Calif.  around 1 a.m., dreaming he is trapped in a burning tank. He opens his eyes, but he can’t move, he can’t get out of bed and he can’t get a drink of water.

U.S. Army veteran Jerral Hancock drove over an IED in Iraq in 2007. He lost his arm and the use of both legs, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Jessica Wilde / News21

U.S. Army veteran Jerral Hancock drove over an IED in Iraq in 2007. He lost his arm and the use of both legs, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Hancock, 27, joined the Army in 2004 and went to Iraq, where he drove a tank. On Memorial Day 2007 — one month after the birth of his second child — Hancock drove over an IED. Just 21, he lost his arm and the use of both legs, and now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. The Department of Veterans Affairs pays him $10,000 every month for his disability, his caretakers, health care, medications and equipment for his new life.

No government agency has calculated fully the lifetime cost of health care for the large number of post-9/11 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with life-lasting wounds. But it is certain to be high, with the veterans’ higher survival rates, longer tours of duty and multiple injuries, plus the anticipated cost to the VA of reducing the wait times for medical appointments and reaching veterans in rural areas.

“Medical costs peak decades later,” said Linda Bilmes, a professor in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and coauthor of “The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict.”

As veterans age, their injuries worsen over time, she said. The same long-term costs seen in previous wars are likely to be repeated to a much larger extent.

Post-9/11 veterans in 2012 cost the VA $2.8 billion of its $50.9 billion overall annual health budget, records show.  The post 9/11 veterans costs are expected to increase by $510 million in 2013, according to the VA budget.

Like Hancock, many veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have survived multiple combat injuries because of military medicine’s highly advanced care. Doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio repaired Hancock’s body with skin grafts and sent him to spinal-cord doctors for the shrapnel that ultimately left him paralyzed. He still has his right arm, but he can only move the thumb on his right hand.

Injuries like Hancock’s likely will lead to other medical issues, ranging from heart disease to diabetes, for example, as post-9/11 veterans age.

“So we have the same phenomenon but to a much greater extent,” Bilmes said. “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.”

Veterans like Hancock with polytraumatic injuries will require decades of costly rehabilitation, according to a 2012 Military Medicine report that analyzed the medical costs of war through 2035. More than half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are between the ages of 18 and 32, according to 2011 American Community Survey data. They are expected to live 50 more years, the Institute of Medicine reports.

About 25 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and 7 percent have traumatic brain injury, according to Congressional Budget Office analyses of VA data. The average cost to treat them is about four to six times greater than those without these injuries, CBO reported. And polytrauma patients cost an additional 10 times more than that.

Post-9/11 veterans use the VA more than other veterans and their numbers are growing at the fastest rate. Fifty-six percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans use the VA now. and their numbers are expected to grow by 9.6 percent this year and another 7.2 percent next year, according to a VA report from March 2013.

In response to multiple injuries suffered by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the VA established its polytrauma care system in 2005, creating centers around the country where veterans are treated for multiple injuries, ranging from TBI and PTSD to amputations, hearing loss, visual impairments, spinal-cord injuries, fractures and burns. Post-9/11 veterans make up around 90 percent of polytrauma patients, said Susan Lucht, program manager of the polytrauma center at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System in Tucson.

Each polytrauma patient costs the VA on average $136,000 a year, according to a CBO report, using VA data from 2004 through 2009. And many of their medical issues will never go away.

One TBI patient at the Tucson center, Erik Castillo, has received speech, physical, occupational, psychological and recreational therapies for all of the paralysis, cognition and memory issues associated with injuries he received in a bomb blast in Baghdad. But Castillo’s treatment is exactly what medical professionals and economists say could potentially be cost-saving as well as life-saving.

If the VA treats primary injuries early on and creates a community and family support system, it might be able to lower costs later, said Dr. James Geiling, Dr. Joseph Rosen and Ryan Edwards, an economist, in their 2012 Military Medicine report.

Castillo has been living with TBI for nine years, and he still goes to the VA three times a week for therapy. “I’ll utilize the VA for the rest of my life,” he said.

The shrapnel that entered Castillo’s brain from a bomb in Baghdad in 2004 burned a portion of his frontal lobe, which had to be removed. Doctors told his parents that he wouldn’t survive and that if he did, he would need care for the rest of his life.

Slowly, Castillo started to re-create himself. He learned to talk again, to eat again, to move his left arm and leg. Now, he is going to college.

As post-9/11 veterans age, they will need increased medical care and will become more expensive for the VA. The injuries they have now will likely lead to more complicated and expensive medical issues. TBI, for example, may lead to greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, psychological, physical and functional problems, and alcohol-abuse disorders.

Doctors and economists argue that today’s conversation should not only be about the primary wounds of war, but about the medical issues that are often associated with them. PTSD, for example, is often associated with smoking, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Amputations are associated with obesity, cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, back pain and phantom limb pain.

“Society is not yet considering the medical costs of caring for today’s veterans in 2035 — a time when they will be middle-aged, with health issues like those now seen in aging Vietnam veterans, exacerbated by comorbidities of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and polytrauma,” Geiling, Rosen and Edwards wrote.

Back Home: The Challenges Facing Post-9/11 Veterans Returning from the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving top college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Hearst Foundations, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, Women & Philanthropy at ASU and the Peter Kiewit Foundation funded the work of individual fellows. 

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