When the Affordable Care Act -- better known as Obamacare -- goes into full effect next year, the Department of Veterans Affairs expects to see its veteran patient population grow by about 66,000, a senior VA official told Congress on Wednesday.
To be able to meet the influx, the VA is asking Congress for an additional $85 million. The VA estimates there are about 1.3 million uninsured veterans in the U.S. eligible for VA healthcare, and many will be looking at selecting a health insurance option under the new law next year.
"Some veterans may become eligible for Medicaid while others may become eligible for tax credits to purchase health care coverage [under the ACA] through the health insurance marketplace," Dr. Robert A. Petzel, under secretary for health with the VA's Veterans Health Administration, told the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
However, some lawmakers questioned VA's prediction that it will see a 66,000-veteran jump in the system when Obamacare is instituted.
Petzel defended the VA's projections, saying they were based on national surveys of veterans and the choices they make based on a range of demographics. He said veterans make their choices on healthcare on a number of things, including their proximity to a VA facility and the kinds of care they want and need.
In many cases, veterans with healthcare from a private provider are already getting the care they need where they live, Petzel said. Opting for VA coverage may not meet their needs, he explained.
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., who is also a doctor, said it is "ridiculous" to think any veteran eligible for VA healthcare might choose a state Medicaid program.
"People won't' go to Medicaid if they've got a choice," Benishek said. "That's a ridiculous assumption. If you think it's going to be a 66,000 increase you are vastly mistaken … I think you're assumptions are truly incorrect."
"I would disagree with you Congressman that our assumptions are ridiculous," Petzel replied. "We think ... 66,000 is a good prediction."
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the committee, asked Petzel what happens if the VA is wrong, and that it is flooded with many more of those vets seeking healthcare.
"We will assess this on a very close and regular basis," Petzel said. "We are planning for what is the likely possibility. You wouldn't like us coming in to say one million new patients are coming in [to the system] and we need ‘X' amount of money."
Some lawmakers also pointed out that there are another 7 million or so already-insured veterans eligible for VA healthcare. When the ACA kicks in next year, those veterans may rethink sticking with what they have or going to the VA, the lawmakers said
Petzel said the VA is focusing only on the roughly 1 million veterans who are not insured but who, under the law, need to find coverage.
The VA and the White House have insisted all along that the ACA would not have any effect on veterans' health care.
They have also said that veterans and their dependents enrolled in VA healthcare meet the individual responsibility requirement and so are exempt from any penalty for not carrying private insurance or being in a state program.