by Karen Keller Capuciati
If medical expenses are straining your finances and your parent is a veteran, 65 years or older, then this is one blog you should definitely read.
Debbie Burak was in this very situation. When her elderly parents, already in poor health, lost their house to a fire, they moved into an assisted living facility rather than attempting to rebuild their lost home. Her parents, however, were not financially prepared to handle the cost of long-term care.
“We were overwhelmed by the expense of facility living,” Debbie explained in a telephone interview. “Our parents were living off of Social Security, which wasn’t nearly enough to cover their expenses. So we pulled from their small nest egg, and my aunt and my sister and I collectively chipped in to help each month, but it was exhausting to always be needing something extra, on top of just getting by with our own immediate family’s needs.
“New expenses would always come up,” she added, “be it a new medication for Mom’s kidney condition or a root canal for Dad. The financial stress kept us all on edge.”
In the midst of all the turmoil, though, it occurred to Debbie that perhaps her father, who had fought in World War II, was entitled to some benefit from the Veterans Administration. “I kept calling and explaining the desperate situation. Sometimes pleading, sometimes crying. Frantically asking, ‘Isn’t there something you can do?’ The response I got each time was ‘Nope . . . Nope . . . Nope.’”
It wasn’t until years later, after her father had passed on, that Debbie got a tip that changed her life. Her mom, suffering from kidney failure and congestive heart disease, needed to go into a nursing home, and while they were in the process of finding one, a representative at one of the facilities told Debbie they should be eligible for financial assistance from the VA.
Based on her previous experience, Debbie was naturally skeptical, but she applied anyway, fully expecting another rejection. “But seven years after my first inquiry,” she said, “and 90 days after submitting my application for a little-known pension benefit, we received an award letter.” Tragically, due to bureaucratic obstacles at the VA, Debbie never received any funds before her mom, too, had passed on.
However, Debbie created something positive out of her heartrending experience: VeteranAid.org, a website she founded to ensure that the same sad fate her family suffered at the hands of the VA did not befall other families as well. Debbie’s mission is now to help families by building awareness, through her website, of the pension benefits that are available to veterans and their spouses, and to make it easier for them to maneuver the application process. Debbie hopes to one day see these veteran pensions become as widely known as the benefits for Social Security and Medicaid.
Here is the gist of the pension benefits:
- Any wartime veteran with 90 days of active duty, total assets of less than $80,000, and a pressing financial need. Check here for wartime periods as set by the Veterans Administration.
- A veteran with a sick spouse who has medical expenses depleting their combined monthly income can also apply for a benefit.
- A surviving spouse of a wartime veteran, also in financial need. Marriage must have ended as a result of the veteran’s death.
- Whether living at home, or in a nursing home or assisted living facility, the qualifying person must need, and is paying for, assistance for daily functioning (i.e., assistance with bathing, feeding, medications, etc.). Remember, this is not an automatic pension benefit for all veterans. The $80,000 figure mentioned does not include the value of one’s home and vehicles. Use this Countable Income Chart to figure out if your family is eligible.
What Do They Qualify For?
There are two pension levels available: “Housebound” and “Aid and Attendance.” The former plan provides less daily-living assistance than the latter, but both of them require that the applicant be actively paying for care. If your veteran parent or surviving spouse is in a facility (assisted living or nursing home), care is obviously being paid for. However, if the same parent is still living at home and being cared for by their children and friends, it is necessary for regular payment to be made to these caregivers in order to establish eligibility.
Below is the range of monthly figures to give you an idea of what can be awarded. (VeteranAid.org cites these figures from the Veterans Administration, which are current as of 12/1/12.)
- A veteran is eligible for up to $1,269 a month (Housebound plan) or $1,732 a month (Aid and Attendance plan).
- A surviving spouse is eligible for up to $851/$1,113.
- A veteran with a spouse who both require care is eligible for up to $1,591/$2,054.
- A veteran with a sick spouse is eligible for up to $1,360 a month.
To learn more and start the application process yourself, go to VeteranAid.org and read through the pages under “Navigation.” It is all there in simple, easy-to-follow language. Debbie outlines eligibility, how to apply, and what to expect. She gives examples of what to write when extra correspondence is needed, and provides tips to help smooth out the process.
There are some also noteworthy tips on the site regarding the following:
- The full list of documents you will need to produce and how to get copies of lost documents;
- Sending the application to the wrong processing center will delay the process — consult the list of centers to get the right one for you;
- Keep a copy of all the correspondence with the VA and use “return receipt” when mailing the application to have proof the VA received the documents;
- If your loved one has a diminished mental capacity condition, such as Alzheimer’s, the VA does not accept POA (Power of Attorney) or DPOA (Durable Power of Attorney) and will require a fiduciary (a legal trustee to represent the applicant). Debbie walks you through this additional step on her site;
- How to expedite the process when the applicant is 90 years or older; and
- How to establish your claim in the VA system while you are gathering all your documentation, before you’ve even sent the material.
Keep in mind, this process, from applying to receiving benefits, is currently estimated to take 10-1/2 months. So start right away if you’re family is eligible. VeteranAid.org is a great resource to help you through a tremendously stressful period.