WASHINGTON - The number of US veterans who died in 2008 because they lacked health insurance was 14 times higher than the US military death toll in Afghanistan that year, according to a new study.
The analysis produced by two Harvard medical researchers estimates that 2,266 US military veterans under the age of 65 died in 2008 because they lacked health coverage and had reduced access to medical care.
That figure is more than 14 times higher than the 155 US troop deaths in Afghanistan in 2008, the study says.
Released as the United States commemorates fallen soldiers on Veterans Day, the study warns that even health care provided by the Veterans Health Administration (VA) leaves many veterans without coverage.
The analysis uses census data to isolate the number of US veterans who lack both private health coverage and care offered by the VA.
"That's a group that's about 1.5 million people," said David Himmelstein, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Physicians for a National Health Program who co-authored the study.
Himmelstein and co-author Stephanie Woolhandler, also a Harvard medical professor, overlaid that figure with another study examining the mortality rate associated with lack of health insurance.
"The uninsured have about a 40 percent higher risk of dying each year than otherwise comparable insured individuals," Himmelstein told AFP.
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"Putting that all together you get an estimate of almost 2,300 -- 2,266 veterans who die each year from lack of health insurance."
Only some US veterans have access to medical care through the VA and coverage is apportioned on the basis of eight "priority groups."
"They range from things like people who were prisoners of war, who have coverage for life, or who have battle injuries and therefore have coverage for their injuries for life," said Himmelstein.
Veterans who fall below an income threshold that is determined on a county-by-county basis can qualify for care, but many veterans are "working poor" and fall just above the bracket.
"The priority eight group, the lowest priority, are veterans above the very poor group who have no other reason to be eligible and that group is essentially shut out of the VA," according to Himmelstein.
The study comes as the US Senate weighs health care reform legislation and whether to offer government health insurance.
Himmelstein warns that congressional proposals could still leave veterans uncovered and favors a national health care program similar to those in Britain and Canada.