Veterans are more likely to contract cancer, battle heart disease and face substance abuse problems than their civilian peers, but are also less likely to see problems with their overall health, according to a new study released today.

The report, from UnitedHealth Group and the Military Officers Association of America, presents a warning for civilian doctors that they may need to dig deeper into veterans' medical files to make sure health problems aren't being overlooked.

"The study shows us that the general population is going to be more forthcoming with symptoms and problems than those who have served," said Dr. Richard Migliori, chief medical officer for UnitedHealth Group. "So they have to be more persistent with those patients."

The survey, based on phone interviews with 400,000 veterans and civilians, found that 57 percent of male veterans and 56 percent of female veterans described their overall health as very good or excellent. Only 51 percent of civilians in both groups reported the same.

Researchers also found that veterans were more likely to be physically active than their civilian peers and more likely to have some type of health insurance.

But they also saw that those positives may be obscuring more serious health threats. Veterans under 40 were more often than their peers to get insufficient sleep (50 percent to 36 percent) of pick up smoking (26 to 21).

And more veterans suffer from heart disease (5.5 percent to 3.4 percent) and cancer (11 to 10) than their civilian peers.

"This is an important study, because it gives another tool in the tool kit to understand the veterans population," said René Campos, head of MOAA’s Veterans-Wounded Warrior Health Care programs. "Military and veterans health systems aren’t going to see all of these individuals. This helps start dialogue."

The report comes as Republican lawmakers push for expanded medical appointment options outside Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, a solution that could ease wait times for veterans but also introduce them to physicians with little experience treating their population.

Migliori said he sees the report as an important effort to bridge the civilian-military divide, giving those physicians a better roadmap to follow as they see new veteran patients.

"I’ve been impressed by the resilience of this population, and their effort not to been seen as complaining about their problems," he said. "But doctors need to be on their toes."

Full results from the survey are available at the United Health Foundation web site.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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