As our nation commemorates Veterans Day, honoring and remembering those who have served and sacrificed, it is an appropriate time to consider the financial, medical, and other assistance available to veterans, their families and survivors.
Veterans Benefits are administered at the federal level by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), which is the second largest cabinet-level department and has a budget of $114 billion this year.
While the full range of VA benefits extends to housing and home loan guarantees, job training, small business loans, burials, and memorials, this article will examine the four major benefit programs the VA oversees:
- Disability Compensation;
- Free or Low Cost Medical Care; and
- Education Programs
To be eligible for most VA benefits, a person must have been discharged from service under other than dishonorable conditions.
Disability compensation is paid to veterans who were injured or contracted a disease while on active duty or who had an injury or disease that was made worse while on active duty.
Payments range from $123 to $2,673 a month, depending on the veteran’s level of disability. In addition, the monthly payments can be increased further if the veteran’s disabilities are very severe or resulted in loss of a limb or if the veteran has a spouse or dependent children or parents. Disability compensation is tax-free.
The key to receiving disability compensation is having a service-connected disability with a disability rated from 10% to 100%. Some conditions are presumed to be service-connected. For instance, a veteran who served in Vietnam and has one of several conditions, including Hodgkin’s disease, Type 2 diabetes, and prostate cancer, is presumed to have a service-connected disability due to the effects of Agent Orange.
The VA also pays a benefit, called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), to certain survivors of: (1) a service member who died while serving; (2) a veteran whose death resulted from a service-related injury or disease; or, (3) in some cases, a veteran with a service-connected disability that was rated as totally disabling.
The survivors eligible for DIC include a surviving spouse, a minor child and, in some cases, a disabled adult child that the VA has determined to be “helpless.” A disabled adult child is a child who before age 18 became permanently incapable of self-support. A spouse’s basic DIC benefit is $1,154, while the maximum benefit available to a child, including a disabled adult child, is $488 a month.
Unlike VA compensation, the VA pension does not require that a veteran have a service-connected disability. Instead, a pension is paid to wartime veterans with limited income who are permanently and totally disabled or age 65 and older.
The wartime service requirement does not mean that the veteran had to serve in actual military conflict but rather that the veteran must have served for at least one day during a time period that the VA defines as a wartime period. Service from August 2, 1990 to the present is considered to be a period of war (technically as the Gulf War period), as are several other periods, including World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
The VA pension supplements the veteran’s other countable income to bring total income up to the pension benefit amount. At first blush, the income limit seems unusually strict, as a veteran with no dependents is only allowed an income of $11,830 a year. However, unreimbursed medical expenses reduce countable income. While there is no set limit on a veteran’s assets, the VA will deny a pension application when it considers net worth to be excessive for a person’s particular situation, with that benchmark commonly set at a house, car, personal possessions and $80,000 or less in other assets.
There is an increasingly well known component of the VA pension, called Aid and Attendance, which can increase the benefit paid by as much as $1,632 a month for a single veteran. Significantly, this benefit can cover a portion of long-term care costs for a veteran who requires assistance with basic activities of living.
The VA pension also benefits dependents and survivors. For instance, a surviving spouse of a veteran is eligible for an Aid and Attendance benefit of up to $1,055 a month. In addition, like with compensation, minor children and adult children who became disabled before age 18 can be eligible for pension benefits.
The VA offers veterans a range of health care services called a Medical Benefit Package, including preventive medicine, inpatient care, outpatient care, medications and supplies. In addition, in certain circumstances, the VA can pay for specialized services such as bereavement counseling, long-term care, and medical equipment and aids.
While all veterans are potentially eligible for benefits, the VA is required to stay within the limits of funds allocated by Congress, and thus the VA has instituted a priority system, ranging from 1, as the highest priority, and 8 as the lowest, with more covered services and no or reduced co-pays at the higher priority levels.
The highest priority group, Priority Group 1, is for veterans with a service-connected disability rated 50% or higher or who are determined to be unemployable due to a service-connected condition. Beyond that, there are many factors which contribute to the priority group a veteran is assigned. For instance, a former prisoner of war or Purple Heart recipient is in Priority Group 3, and a veteran exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War will be in Priority Group 6.
Priority Groups 7 and 8 are affected by household income. Until 2009, the VA had not been enrolling new Priority Group 8 Veterans. The VA is now enrolling Priority Group 8 Veterans whose income exceeds by not more than 10% the set income threshold of $29,402 a year for a veteran with no dependents.
The VA also has a program called CHAMPVA, which shares the cost of health care services and supplies with eligible beneficiaries. Spouses and minor children, and in some cases disabled adult children, are eligible for this benefit if, generally speaking, the related veteran died on active duty or is, or at death was, permanently and totally disabled due to a service-connected disability.
The new “Post 9/11 GI Bill” offers current service members and veterans substantial assistance with education and training at accredited colleges and universities. Assistance includes up to 100% of tuition and fee coverage (based on the highest public institution rate in a state), a monthly housing allowance, and up to $1,000 a year for books and supplies. An additional benefit, called Yellow Ribbon payments, pays for 50% of expenses above the normal highest rate when an institution matches the other 50%.
To be eligible for full benefits, a veteran must have 90 days of service after September 10, 2001, and must have served 36 months of total service or have been discharged for a service-connected disability. Benefits are reduced, from 90% to 40%, for those with less than 36 months of service.
The VA has just launched an advertising campaign, entitled “My VA,” aimed at increasing veterans’ awareness of the benefits to which they may be entitled. The VA has estimated that of 23 million eligible veterans, only about 8 million use VA services. The VA has invited veterans and their families to visit the VA website as the first stop for information on benefits that are available through the VA. In addition, veterans’ services organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, can be a very valuable source of support, information, and advocacy.
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