Don’t forget or overlook your VA benefits! For retired military personnel and their spouses, these benefits may be forgotten or overlooked, but they can make a real difference in your life as you age. From outright health care to medical assistance such as prescriptions, health assessments, and durable medical goods like hearing aids and wheelchairs, VA medical benefits can make a health crisis or even normal aging less expensive. The VA also offers home loans and modification benefits as well. And don’t forget the benefits for your spouse or caregiver…those are often overlooked or unknown to older Vets. Read on for more details…
Veterans Administration Programs Ease Aging Burdens
By Elyse Umlauf-Garneau
Maybe you’ve never tapped U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) benefits because you’ve never needed them. Or because you forgot that they’re available to you.
But if you or your family member is retired from the military, you may be overlooking a host of health and financial benefits.
Thought the VA won’t deliver the high life, some of its services can ease some of the burdens and costs associated with aging.
The most well-known VA benefits are associated with health care, but the package is more extensive than many realize. It includes:
Preventative services, such as:
- Health care assessments from a team that includes doctors and a social worker
- Health and nutrition education
Medical care, including:
- Outpatient and inpatient hospital, medical, surgical, mental health care, and substance abuse care
- Prescription drugs
- Rehab services
- Durable medical equipment, such as hearing aids and glasses.
- Respite and adult daycare. If you’re a full-time caregiver to a Veteran, you can get 30 days per year off. Adult day care services, says Carlotta Katra, are especially helpful if, for example, you’re caring for someone with dementia and that person can’t be left alone safely. Katra is president of Aging Avenues Eldercare Consulting, Indianapolis, Ind., a fee-only consulting company with an expertise in VA benefits.
- Hospice care. The service is for Vets with a terminal condition and who have six months or less to live.
Easier aging in place
Other benefits that aren’t linked to health care and some that are lesser known have the power to ease day-to-day aging challenges and, in some cases, transform lives by allowing for greater independence.
Keep in mind that not all veterans qualify and some program benefits vary depending on what state you live in. And one rule of thumb to keep in mind is that disabled veterans typically receive the deepest benefits.
Some non-medical benefits include:
- Home loans: Qualified Vets can use VA loans to buy or build a home and renovate an existing one. See www.benefits.va.gov/homeloans for more information.
- Home modifications: Grants are available for small modifications, such as for installing universal design elements like shower grab bars. Others address more extensive renovations to create barrier-free living. For more information, see www.vba.va.gov/VBA/benefits/factsheets/homeloans/homemods.doc
- Vehicle modification: Vets with disabilities connected to their military service may qualify for money for buying or modifying a car to accommodate those injuries. For information, see www1.va.gov/VHAPUBLICATIONS/ViewPublication.asp?pub_ID=340
- Dependents and Survivors Benefits: If you’re a low-income widow of a Vet who did wartime service, you may be eligible for some pension money and some other services. See www1.va.gov/opa/publications/benefits_book/benefits_chap12.asp and www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/pension/spousepencalc.htm for more information.
Perhaps the single most overlooked benefit is Aid & Attendance, which is an Improved Pension Benefit for Vets and their surviving spouses who need assistance with basic self-care.
A doctor has to qualify a candidate and a person must be legally blind or need assistance with one or more of the following:
- Personal care
The tax-free money, ranging from $1,094 to $2,020, can be used for care at home, in an assisted living facility, or at a nursing home.
There are stringent qualification guidelines. For instance, the Vet or spouse must be spending at least 5 percent more than their gross income on medical and care expenses to get the maximum benefit.
In addition, those who qualify must have limited–typically the VA says $80,000 or less per couple–assets, though Katra says that’s not a hard and fast rule.
And since the VA, unlike Medicaid, doesn’t have a lookback period, you can do some advance planning to qualify for the benefit without incurring a penalty.
“You could have $1 million today and, with proper planning, get approved for Aid & Attendance tomorrow, ” says Katra. “They do look at assets, but right now there’s no penalty for repositioning assets, but that probably will change this year.”
That’s why Katra suggests planning early and meeting with an attorney schooled in elder law and who understands VA benefits. After all, no one really knows when the VA will close the loophole.
6 things to know
- Snowbird benefits. If you have dual residences, you need to register at hospitals in both places. This is especially important for snowbirds who spend six months in Chicago, for example, but pass the winter in Florida or Arizona.
- Know your benefits. Don’t overestimate benefits. It’s important to really understand what the VA does and doesn’t provide when you’re doing your long-term planning. For instance, many assume that they get cradle-to-grave care. But for funerals, for instance, the VA typically provides only a $300 burial allowance. For more about burial benefits, see http://www1.va.gov/opa/publications/benefits_book/benefits_chap07.asp.
- Be patient. Be prepared to wait for appointments and when you’re picking up medicine, suggests Katra. The VA isn’t known for speed.
- Pre-screen facilities. If you’re looking for nursing care and you or your relative qualifies for a VA facility, visit the facilities in your area and take a close look at them. Not all are created equal. Some are lovely and state-of-the art and others are just the opposite, according Katra.
- Agent Orange exposure: Katra says exposure to Agent Orange likely will affect everyone who went to Vietnam. Among the ailments are early heart attacks, prostate cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. Veterans who filed a claim years ago and who thought they had symptoms, can return to the VA for treatment. “Because they filed a prior claim, they’re eligible for 100 percent disability. That can be worth a huge amount of money because a Vet who is fully disabled gets a monthly payment,” she says. “They also pay that amount all the way back to their original claim date.” For more information on Agent Orange exposure and for information about making a claim, see www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/agentorange and www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/benefits/Herbicide/AOno3.htm.
- Hire an expert. Don’t go it alone, especially if you’re applying for Aid & Attendance, says Katra. It’s a complex process and not all the details, exceptions, and updates are easy to find for the average consumer. So someone, an eldercare attorney or consultant with VA expertise, can decipher the legalese and fine print and guide you through the process.
Apply for VA benefits online https://www.1010ez.med.va.gov, by calling 1-877-222-VETS (8387), or in person. To find VA facilities, see www2.va.gov/directory/guide/home.asp.
Consultants and eldercare lawyers:
- Carlotta Katra, Aging Avenues Eldercare Consulting, www.agingavenues.com
- National Elder Law Foundation, www.nelf.org/find-a-cela
- American Bar Association www.americanbar.org/groups/law_aging.html
VA benefits basics:
Aid & Attendance: