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Veterans and health care: How well are we caring for our military?

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A couple walks through some of the two thousand and thirteen United States flags, that are part of the Aurora Healing Fields to honor veterans, during Veterans Day weekend in Aurora, Illinois November 10, 2013. (REUTERS/Jeff Haynes)

There are about 23 million living U.S. veterans, the majority of whom served in Vietnam or the Gulf War. Approximately 5.5 million beneficiaries get their healthcare from the Department of Defense, including active servicemen and women, along with retirees and their families.

Two recently retired young military men say their coverage is good, although—as with private insurance plans—navigating the bureaucracy is the most difficult part of the process.

VA Chips Away at Disability Claims Backlog
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced Thursday that 93 percent of claims over a year old from veterans seeking disability have been completed, a 34 percent increase since the backlog peaked in March. Another 400,835 veteran claims are still backlogged.

After serving six years in the U.S. Navy, Devon J. Avant experienced a delay in getting treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Related: See Why Depression Disproportionately Affects the Military

During his service, Avant was deployed in the North Arabian Gulf, provided humanitarian aid in Haiti, and served with the Army’s 101st Airborne division in Balad, Iraq.

“Currently I'm seeking care for PTSD, which is a lot simpler to say than the bevy of illnesses that I was diagnosed with in the service,” Avant said Friday. “The paperwork was just as simple as filling out a few forms. Appointments are pretty timely too. The only lengthy thing is filing for disability after you've been out of the service.”

Disability Claims for PTSD
Herein lies the problem for many in the Armed Forces: Medical personnel review a service member’s medical records if he or she applies for disability during active duty.

“The problem, like with me, is that most service members lie to stay in so as to not jeopardize their careers,” Avant said. “And when you're getting out, if you were considered ‘fit for full duty,’ you get your record glanced over and [you're] told to keep moving.”

After the appropriate reviews, Avant, who is classified as a combat veteran, was granted disability status and his treatment for PTSD is fully covered by the VA.

PTSD, which older veterans call “shell shock,” is a major concern for the more than 2.5 million troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since those wars began, more than 105,000 deployed and non-deployed service members have sought care for PTSD, according to military records.

Twenty-one percent of troops who served overseas sought treatment from the VA for PTSD from 2005 to 2009, those records show.

Related: Find Out Why Younger Soldiers Are Seven Times More Likely to Develop PTSD

Tricare for Active, Reserve, and Retired
Tim Khana of San Jose, Calif., served in the IRR Inactive Ready Reserve, Marines, 2/23 Company E, in San Bruno, Calif., from 2007 to May of this year. His unit served six months in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2009.

The son of a Naval officer, Khana has been covered under Tricare, the federal healthcare program for those in the military, his entire life.

Overall, Khana called Tricare “really efficient” but said, “Sometimes doctors are difficult to find because the practice decides not to renew the contracts.”

Related: Explore 10 Simple Ways to Relieve Stress

Changing Contracts Can Cause Problems
Tricare contracts are made with different clinics in order to give servicemen and women options for their healthcare. However, when these contracts change from year to year, it can create paperwork-fueled headaches.

Khana experienced this first-hand this spring after the regional office TriWest merged completely with Tricare. During that time, he broke his wrist, resulting in a bill for all the costs from Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose due to a paperwork error saying Khana wasn’t covered.

Thankfully, the error was fixed and fees were waived.

According to the latest oversight report, Tricare rates better in overall quality of care than the private sector. However, the metrics of getting needed care, getting referrals to specialists, getting care quickly, and getting necessary appointments quickly lag behind private insurer benchmarks.

Related: Learn 11 Ways to Save Money on Healthcare

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