- - Monday, November 5, 2018

More than 1 million veterans rely on the Lifeline program connecting low-income households to essential services like health care, job opportunities and public safety. Also relied upon by seniors, the disabled, and many other Americans, the Lifeline program, started under President Ronald Reagan, gives low-income families discounts on phone and Internet services.

Unfortunately, proposed changes from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) threaten to undermine this vital program and hurt those who depend on it most.

About 40 million people are eligible for Lifeline and roughly 10 million of those have enrolled. Of the enrollees, around 1.3 million (or more than 10 percent) are veterans or disabled veterans living near or below the poverty line. In many cases, these individuals and their families rely on the Lifeline program for everyday tasks, like staying connected to their jobs, their families and to emergency services.

The phone call can be a real lifeline, especially since many veterans often face difficult re-entry back into civilian life and turn to support hotlines. Suicide risks among veterans remain high, with male veterans at a 19 percent higher risk for suicide than non-veteran men, and female veterans at 2.5 times the risk for suicide as female non-veterans. Affordable wireless phones allow low-income veterans to have a phone and ask for help.

According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans have higher rates of homelessness than other members of our society. This is particularly true of veterans who are transitioning back to civilian life. By providing veterans in need with a simple phone, Lifeline gives them a tool they can use to find a job, gain medical care and improve their lives.

Unfortunately, the FCC wants to change all of that for veterans and not in a good way. Proposed restrictions on Lifeline would ban resellers of phone and broadband services from providing Lifeline services. These resellers purchase telecommunications services from other companies and repackage them for consumers. Wireless resellers currently provide 70 percent of all Lifeline service and 76 percent of all wireless Lifeline service. They also give customers access to voice and broadband service in rural parts of the country, where few other Lifeline options exist. If the FCC approves these changes, millions of Americans — including hundreds of thousands of veterans — will be left without this most basic daily need: a phone.

Like all government programs, Lifeline can and should be improved where possible. One important reform, the National Verifier, is a widely supported solution to help reduce waste, fraud and abuse by supplying an easy and instantaneous way to confirm an applicant’s eligibility for enrollment.

We agree with other low-income advocates who think the FCC should implement the National Verifier and fully study the potential impact of any proposal, including the proposed reseller ban, before making drastic changes to the program that could leave millions without this important service.

There are other bad ideas for Lifeline that would hurt vets, including requiring already poor veterans to come up with money to participate in the program. Similarly, curbs on the overall size of the program would unfairly hurt vets at a time when millions who are currently eligible for Lifeline would simply be barred from getting help. If a program is designed to help low-income vets and others, then it should be fair and let everyone who is eligible participate.

We believe the federal government has a responsibility to help veterans make their return to civilian life as smooth a transition as possible. A competitive Lifeline Program with multiple choices for voice and broadband services is one way to help accomplish that important and essential goal. The FCC should abandon its attack on the Lifeline program and avoid taking Lifeline away from the veterans who depend on it.

• James Fisher is executive director of the Korean War Veterans Association. Keith David is executive director of the Task Force Dagger Foundation.

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