Veterans receive 120 million prescriptions in the mail every year—and recent GOP budget cuts to the Postal Service mean that their health care and lives are on the line.
Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Tuesday issued a statement indicating that he would pause cost-cutting measures at the United States Postal Service (USPS). The move comes amid a national outcry and an impending hearing for DeJoy with the U.S. House of Representatives next week.
The most recent cost-cutting measures began shortly after DeJoy started his tenure at the USPS this summer. While certain service cuts pre-date DeJoy’s tenure (including the removal of certain sorting machines), policies he enacted—like ending late delivery and limiting overtime—have led to mail delays across the country.
They’ve also raised concerns about everything from the upcoming elections to health care. However, those delays have already impacted U.S. residents (and will continue to do so after the election)—and are already affecting the nation’s veterans and service members.
The chief concern has been preserving veterans’ uninterrupted and timely access to life-saving medications. The U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) processes 120 million prescriptions every year, and the vast majority of those arrive by mail.
“330,000 veterans receive a prescription in the mail each day, and that ranges by age,” said Will Goodwin, a veteran and the director of government relations at VoteVets, who spoke with COURIER this week. “We have a lot of veterans who are older and served in Korea or Vietnam. Some of our World War II veterans are still with us, and they’re able to receive life-saving medications directly to their homes without having to get in a car and drive.”
VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told COURIER that the vast majority of medications were arriving to veterans on time. “Currently, VA prescriptions delivered via USPS orders are averaging less than three days delivery time,” Noel said in an email. “More than 95 percent of VA prescriptions delivered via UPS next-day service have been on time.”
While UPS next-day shipping does not cost veterans extra through VA pharmacies, only specific medications can be shipped using next-day delivery. In other words, next-day delivery options are not a reliable option for veterans whose medications do not fall under those parameters.
Additionally, Disabled Veterans of America (DAV)—a congressionally created organization that assists the nation’s disabled veterans—disputes the VA’s claim. According to DAV National Commander Stephen Whitehead, the VA admitted to the group that prescriptions were taking up to 25% longer than usual to receive this year.
Even if there is a brief reprieve from USPS service delays before the election, in the months following, the Postal Service could revert to cost-cutting measures that cause delays once again.
Getting medications delivered at home prevents veterans of all age groups from having to get in their car and visit crowded VA clinics and pharmacies to fill their medications. Goodwin, however, notes that the risks aren’t just limited to older veterans. Even those returning from more recent deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan have conditions related to so-called burn pits found on many military bases. There, trash and waste are burned, releasing toxic compounds like dioxin that makes its way into troops’ residential areas and causing lung damage. This kind of lung disease is precisely the sort of illness that can make COVID-19 severe or life-threatening.
The benefits of keeping veterans away from pharmacies and clinics, particularly older veterans and those suffering from deployment-related illnesses, are easy enough to see. But Goodwin also explains that the USPS has been one of the most important post-service employers for military veterans.
“As of February, there were more than 97,000 veterans who are employed by USPS,” Goodwin told COURIER. “As a federal agency, it provides hiring preference for veterans if they’re leaving military service to help them get into a job. These are good union jobs with benefits that are akin to what people are used to from military service.”
Goodwin sees an ethical throughline from military service to civilian employment for veterans who go on to be employed by the USPS. “If you work hard and you complete the mission, the USPS is gonna take care of you and allow you to raise a family and retire after you’ve worked a full career,” he said.
The ties between the USPS, the military, and veterans are also experienced in less quantitatively tangible ways as well. One of the more popular memes making its way around social media in recent weeks compares the cost of mailing various envelopes and boxes through the USPS, UPS, and FedEx. The USPS is almost always the cheapest option when compared to private shipping companies. That’s particularly true for express options offered by the USPS.
That cost issue has a direct qualitative impact on active-duty military. The USPS allows families and friends to send care packages and other letters to military stationed at bases around the world for the same cost as a domestic shipment. Goodwin himself was stationed in Hawaii, and was able to send care packages to friends deployed in Afghanistan far cheaper than if he had to use UPS or FedEx.
“You have the ability to put together a box or write a letter that reminds them of how much they’re loved at home,” Goodwin said. “And you cannot separate that from the ability of our men and women in uniform to do their jobs and perform their jobs well. They can stay connected with their kids and with their parents when they’re overseas on dangerous missions.”