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We’ve written before about the ways Schweitzer Fellows are meeting the health needs of disenfranchised, underserved veterans.

Today — a day where we all pause to honor those who have served, and sacrificed for, our country — we’re given a heartbreaking reminder of why projects like those Schweitzer Fellows’ are necessary:

A research team at Harvard Medical School estimates 2,266 U.S. military veterans under the age of 65 died last year because they lacked health insurance and thus had reduced access to care. That figure is more than 14 times the number of deaths (155) suffered by U.S. troops in Afghanistan in 2008, and more than twice as many as have died (911 as of Oct. 31) since the war began in 2001.

The Harvard research team’s findings were reported yesterday by Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP). In addition to the sobering statistics, PNHP’s report included these words from Harvard’s Dr. David Himmelstein:

“On this Veterans Day we should not only honor the nearly 500 soldiers who have died this year in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the more than 2,200 veterans who were killed by our broken health insurance system. That’s six preventable deaths a day.”

Schweitzer Fellows working to improve veterans’ health care access have seen firsthand the failures of that system — and are dedicating themselves to changing things.

“Originally not from Baltimore, I came to the city to work with veterans with mental illness at the Baltimore Veterans Affairs Hospital,” says 2008-09 Baltimore Schweitzer Fellow Noah Isserman. “While working with patients, I realized that the best way to provide assistance to the veterans was through attending law school — after which I would provide guidance to veterans on how to navigate the complex systems created to provide access to health care to veterans.”

“I started the Schweitzer project with the notion that I would provide legal assistance to veterans on a case by case basis,” Isseman says. “However, I quickly realized that a year was not enough time to make even a small impact on a case-by-case basis when dealing with the veterans benefits process” — a process that takes, on average, two to three years, due to long timelines on paperwork requests and fact research.

“With this difficulty in mind, I shifted my focus to raising awareness of these issues and helping others learn the knowledge that they would need to provide their own assistance to veterans,” Isserman says.  Along with his partner organizations, Isserman has helped to provide training for over 40 Baltimore-area attorneys, each of whom is now able to provide assistance to veterans on a pro bono basis. Additionally, the work completed in Isserman’s Fellowship year prompted his school, the University of Maryland, to begin creating a unique clinic aimed at assisting homeless veterans in getting off the streets and taking control of a more productive and healthy life.

As a result of his Schweitzer Project,  Isserman was offered a position with the United States Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, working with the committee to help in their new initiative to overhaul the veterans benefits process into a more streamlined and easier to understand process for veterans around the country.

Reports like PNHP’s make it clear that Isserman and his colleagues’ mission couldn’t be more urgent.

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