Health Politics

Attorney General Andy Beshear is appealing to Kentucky veterans with a set of health-related programs and policies he’d work toward if elected governor in November.

“We have a special duty to our veterans whose health care needs so often come from the sacrifice that they have made for our country,” Beshear said, adding that he wants to address some of the biggest challenges of vets.

“Our health care plan is designed to make sure that we can provide the services we need to stop those suicides, to stop that substance abuse. And to truly be there for our veterans.”

Veterans were more than twice as likely to die by suicide in 2016 than people who’ve never served in the military, according to the Veterans Affairs Administration. They also have higher rates of substance abuse issues – about 1 in 15 veterans in 2013 had a substance use disorder, whereas the national average among persons aged 17 or older was about 1 in 11, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

Here are the five areas Beshear aims to address with his plan:

  • Train doctors and emergency medical professionals in veteran-specific care. The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure would add classes for civilian medical professionals on challenges specific to veterans under the plan, as VA Hospitals across the state are building a program that allows some veterans to see civilian doctors outside the VA.

“It may be specific training on PTSD related to combat, it may be specific training related to the difficulty… that veterans face trying to get acclimated back to civilian life,” Beshear said. 

  • Allowing veterans to take unpaid time off work to travel to a VA hospital, without fear of being fired. 

Many veterans live in rural Kentucky, and while some care at the VA is free to veterans, many can’t afford to take off work because of fear they may lose their job. Beshear said he’d first allow veteran state employees time off work to go to the VA. 

“A veteran shouldn’t be at a disadvantage, because they get health care through the VA, as opposed to any other employee,” Beshear said. 

Beshear said he doesn’t have a specific plan for how he could gain that kind of access for private-sector veterans, but he thinks regulation or legislation could work and he would look more closely at how to make it happen if elected.

  • Expand access to mental health services via telehealth, allowing veterans to use telehealth to connect with a mental health provider from the VA via a video screen at a local community health center.

Beshear said a big part of his plan includes expanding broadband internet access across Kentucky so veterans can see doctors in their own home. He said he’d also work with the VA to expand existing telehealth programs.

  • Increase veteran-to-veteran outreach on substance abuse issues by partnering with veteran service groups to expand programs that connect veterans struggling with addiction issues with those in recovery.
  • Obtain more federal funding for Kentucky’s VA facilities. Beshear said he’ll work with anyone across party lines and with Kentucky’s congressional delegation to focus on securing funding for VA facilities in the commonwealth. 

Jeremy Harrell is the founder of Veteran’s Club, a social club and nonprofit that provides equine therapy to vets struggling with PTSD. Harrell didn’t endorse Beshear, but he spoke with WFPL about Beshear’s proposals as an Army veteran and advocate. He said many of Beshear’s ideas address the problems veterans face.

Beshear’s proposal to mandate unpaid time off to go to the VA would be remarkable, Harrell said, especially for vets who have hourly or part-time jobs that don’t allow for a flexible schedule.

Regarding Beshear’s plan to allow vets to be seen at private health provider’s offices, Harrell said it’s crucial for those practitioners to know that veterans might not be as willing to open up, or that they might downplay what brought them to the doctor.

“They’re going to have to prod for information,” Harrell said. “It would be beneficial for them [health providers] to go through some sort of military culture class.”

Beshear will face Gov. Matt Bevin during November’s election. Bevin’s campaign manager, Davis Paine, said that the governor understands the challenges that service members and their spouses face as they transition to careers outside of the military as a veteran himself. 

“His vision is that Kentucky will be the most military-friendly state in the country,” Paine wrote in an email. “He has made this vision a reality over the last 3.5 years by securing grant funding to improve workforce training initiatives for veterans, implementing policies to further occupational licensing reciprocity and signing numerous military-friendly bills into law.”

During his tenure as governor, Bevin has signed into law and supported several bills aimed at benefiting veterans and their families. A new law signed in 2017 allows veterans with a bachelor’s degree to more easily get a teaching certificate. This year, Bevin signed a law that allows military families to pre-enroll children in school before getting a permanent address and gives interview preference for state jobs to service members.

Correction: Gov. Matt Bevin is a veteran. A previous version of this story attributed that status to his campaign manager, who provided the campaign’s statement and is not a veteran. 

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.