Linda Bilmes, an expert in public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, estimates (PDF) disability compensation and medical care costs could reach $700 billion over the lifetime of these soldiers.
The scope of the epidemic was highlighted most dramatically in February 2007 when the Washington Post detailed substandard treatment of injured soldiers at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. But Walter Reed is now seen as just the tip of an emerging health care crisis. The Congressional Research Services estimates sixty thousand troops have been treated for traumatic brain injuries, while the Congressional Budget Office reports 37 percent of all veterans receiving VA care have been seen for mental health problems. And a U.S. Senate analysis finds the influx of returning veterans has created a backlog (PDF) of 400,000 claims and has increased waiting time for claims processing to nearly six months.
Reforming veterans’ health care isn’t the only long-term challenge the military will face as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan churn on, as this Backgrounder explains. But it may be the most emotional. “Is there really any doubt that the system for funding VA health care is broken?” Joseph A. Violante, legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans, asked lawmakers in October 2007. “In our judgment a change is warranted and long overdue.” But as Retired Army Col. Daniel Smith writes, real change will hinge on politicans’ ability to close the gap between paying for war and caring for those who fight them.