Article originally appears in July/August 2015 60-Plus.
Commie Schaben’s 82-year-old father, Ed, is a Korean War veteran who served at Virginia Beach. He survived horrors untold, but last year, he almost died after his small intestine ruptured.
Commie was determined to have him live at home with her after that, but she says making that happen without some kind of assistance would have been difficult.
“I’d be really hurting,” she says. “I’d be skimping and scraping really bad. I probably would have had to put him in a home. I’d rather have him here with me.”
So she went to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website to see if she could obtain any assistance for her dad along the lines of a wheelchair or bathroom handlebars. She sent them her phone number, asking for some guidance.
Dave Olney, a local care advocate, got in touch with her. It turned out the V.A. could do a lot more for her and her dad than she realized.
“It’s just wonderful,” she says.
It may not be the most widely known aid program, but the V.A. offers benefits to former members of the armed forces, and their spouses, to help pay for the cost of care. The veterans’ benefits program helps eligible members pay for care costs like assisted living, treatment after major medical conditions, etc.
Olney often works with clients seeking to obtain veterans benefits and says a veteran and his/her spouse are eligible to receive $25,000 a year for care. A veteran by him or herself may receive a little over $21,000 annually, and the surviving spouse of a veteran may be eligible for over $13,000 annually.
Only about 5 percent of eligible veterans are taking advantage of these benefits.
“In today’s society, as you grow older, quite often, the more care you need, and some of our elderly people [are in] need of care and protecting their assets,” Olney says.
So, why are so few veterans collecting this money?
Olney thinks there are two reasons. The first is that not many people know about the benefits.
The second is that the process can be complicated. Even though no one can charge for filling out the requisite paperwork, oftentimes that paperwork can be confusing, and incorrectly entered or missing information may lead to the V.A. denying an applicant without an explanation.
Olney says one of his recent clients was denied because of a piece of paper missing from the application.
“He would’ve quit right then and there, but that’s the way it is when you deal with government. They don’t always give you all the facts.”
Allan Jackson, director of the Douglas County Veterans Services, says the V.A. requires certain forms and documents to establish a given veteran’s service time and discharge status. The V.A. also requests verification of income and assets as well as medical information if the requested benefits are for care; however, he says there are limits to what a Veterans Service officer is allowed to ask of someone inquiring about benefits.
“We can’t get into an individual’s history,” he says. “We can’t get into an individual’s income and assets. Confidentiality comes into play.”
Even if you fill out all the paperwork, Olney says, how you answer a given question may alter your chances of receiving benefits. For example, the paperwork asks about your assets. What is considered an asset? If you own a given asset, do you own 100 percent of it? (The correct answer is no.) Questions like those aren’t explained in the rules, Olney says, and a care advocate can help applicants determine their finances and incomes, and how care costs affect their incomes. If you tell the V.A. you make a certain amount of money, the V.A. might deny you benefits because your income is too high. Jackson stresses the importance of itemizing the ways in which your income is spent on care. And if you factor in the cost of your care, Olney says, that might help your case.
Olney says he’s found the average veteran who successfully applies and submits the paperwork will start receiving benefits within 90 days. And if more eligible members take advantage of the benefits, there might be other advantages as well. Not only would the veterans and their families be better off, but there would be less strain on other federal programs like Medicaid and Social Security.
As for Ed, Commie says, the V.A. sends visiting nurses to their home. Her dad is also at the top of the list of eligible candidates to stay at the new V.A. home if it comes to that, and if her mom were still alive, the V.A. would have helped her get into assisted living.
“They are entitled to this,” Olney says. “It’s a thing they’ve sacrificed for…it’s something they have truly earned, so why shouldn’t they have this benefit if they’ve truly earned it?