They served in the military decades ago, often putting their lives on the line for their country. But aging veterans are learning that their sacrifice may not guarantee them a COVID-19 vaccine at a Veterans Affairs clinic.
Army veteran Paul Jacobs, 91, found out the hard way.
Jacobs showed up at the VA clinic in West Palm Beach on Sunday hoping to get the shot, but he says he was turned away three hours later because he makes too much money.
“It’s not fair that they turned us away,” he said. “It was just a shame that veterans were discriminated against because of their income.”
Years ago, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offered medical care to nearly all military vets. That changed in 2003, when the underfunded and overburdened agency imposed income limits.
To receive cost-free VA health care, veterans can’t make more than certain amounts depending on where they live, said Kenita Tills, public affairs officer for the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center.
For those who live in Palm Beach County, the limit ranges from $51,535 for a veteran with no dependents to $58,905 for a veteran with one dependent. In Broward County, the limit increases to $51,865 and $59,290, respectively.
The VA sent out notices saying eligible vets 70 and over could get vaccine shots, no appointment required. The notice did not outline the income limits, but did have a link at the bottom of the second page for those wanting to review “income limitations.”
Some marveled that vets who served their country are being turned away for a vaccine while people flying in from outside the U.S. are not.
“I would like to see every veteran get it,” said Jerry Toomey, a Lauderhill resident and commander of Disabled American Veterans Chapter 133. “I don’t know what the rules are that they have to live with [at the VA]. Now should they be waived during this pandemic? That would probably be a good thing to do.”
Jacobs and other vets had high hopes when they heard the VA was holding a special walk-up event over the long Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Some drove from as far as Miami and Port St. Lucie to get their shots — and more than 2,700 of them did. But many were turned away.
“There were 16 of us sent away,” said Jacobs, a retired attorney from Detroit who spends winters with his daughter in Palm Beach Gardens. “I was so upset. I couldn’t even drive home. My daughter had to drive.”
Jacobs said he heard about the walk-up event on the news.
“They did not mention anything about an income limit,” he said.
Tills says all VA medical centers have no choice but to follow the rules, pandemic or not.
“I know people were frustrated,” she said. “But this rule is set by Congress. It’s not a decision made at the local level.”
Tills could not say how many veterans were turned away over the three-day weekend. But more than 360 vets who did meet the income requirements were able to get their shots after enrolling as members of the clinic.
“We had an incredible turnout,” Tills said. “It was so heartwarming to see so many people so happy to get the vaccine.”
Altogether, more than 2,700 veterans were vaccinated against the virus last weekend.
Air Force veteran Mauricio Montana was not one of them.
Montana, 75, left his house in Delray Beach at 3:30 a.m. Saturday to head to West Palm Beach. He lined up behind 150 fellow veterans, eager to finally get his first shot.
Montana, who went to work for IBM as an electrical engineer after leaving the service in 1969, got the bad news around 8 a.m. He didn’t qualify because his annual earnings were too high.
“My daughter is outraged,” said his wife, Valerie Montana. “I called her in tears after he told me he was turned away.”
It’s a national tragedy that military vets were turned away solely based on income, Valerie Montana said.
“We the people were promised free vaccines to everyone who wanted one,” she said. “These veterans who served their country deserve to receive protection from this virus.”
Jacobs, who served in Korea from 1953 to 1955, was stunned the VA would not relax the rules, considering we are in pandemic times.
When Jacobs complained to the VA official who delivered the news, he was told to call his congressman.
“They told us if they got permission, they would call us,” Jacobs said. “But I don’t have any hope for that.”
Fort Lauderdale veteran Bob Hulsy, 76, got up before dawn Sunday to wait in line at the clinic, but was also turned away.
“To qualify, there is an income limit,” Hulsy said of the VA’s vaccine protocol. “Too much income, no shot.”
Had he known about that, he wouldn’t have made the long drive to West Palm Beach at 4 a.m., he said.
Hulsy served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. After his tour of duty, he got a master’s degree in business administration and joined the corporate world.
He’s now back to square one looking for a vaccine.
“I can’t get on the Broward [health department] site,” Hulsy said. “I’ve been trying Holy Cross and Memorial and can’t get on there either.”
The Montanas are now signed up to get their first shot of the vaccine in Orlando, thanks to a little help from their daughter. When they got the good news, they quickly found a way to celebrate, Valeria Montana said.
“We sat down on our back porch and poured a scotch.”