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2006 VA HEALTH, INCOME AND OTHER BENEFITS

By Thomas McCormack 12/04/05

Many fans of movie musicals can recall Joan Blondell belting out “Remember My Forgotten Man” against a moving tableau of World War I doughboys in Busby Berkeley’s film,  Golddiggers of 1933.  In one of Hollywood’s rare early forays into social issues, the song and dance  number called for better treatment of the World War I veterans who’d just been spurned by President Hoover, the lame-duck GOP Congress and even future World War II hero General Douglas MacArthur, who used tanks to disperse thousands of unemployed and disabled veterans demonstrating peacefully for benefits in Washington the year before.

But  over 70  years later, Blondell’s torch-song lament still rings true:  Most of us aren’t aware of benefits which are available to all veterans – and especially disabled veterans  -- and they and the benefits due them too often remain “forgotten.”  (For just one example, in 2000 Lawrence Deyton, MD, the VA’s national coordinator of  HIV care, estimated that only 18,000 of an estimated 85,000 to 130,000 eligible HIV-positive veterans had signed up for the VA health care to which they’re entitled.) Here’s a brief survey of income and health coverage programs for veterans of active duty with general or honorable discharges.

VA Disability  “Pensions”  For Needy “Wartime” Veterans

Veterans who are  permanently and totally disabled  or  over age 65 and have served at least 90 days active duty, including at least one day during what the VA defines as “ wartime”--- even if they never actually entered the war zone---can receive pensions for non-service-connected disabilities (that is, disabilities not arising from the time in service) if their incomes and assets are below certain levels.  In 2006, the pension level for a single veteran without dependents is $881.58 + monthly and additional amounts are paid for invalids and those with dependents. But see the sidebars below for more details about pension income levels, for the officially-recognized “wartime” dates and for details about, and exceptions to, the extra two-years-of-service minimum rule for those who first enlisted after September 7, 1980 .

Income and Asset Rules For VA Pensions

In spite of its name, the VA pension is,  in fact, a welfare program: those with low enough assets, and countable income below the pension amount, receive payments to bring them up to the pension level. Thus, all other countable income -- except welfare, needs-based payments such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI)*, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC), state Temporary Disability Assistance, General Assistance and Home Relief -- reduces the pension payment dollar-for-dollar, and if the other income is high enough, it prevents any pension eligibility at all. (Veterans’ spouses’ and even their minor children’s assets and income are counted. But, in 2006, the first $8,450 a year in a child’s earnings are disregarded.)  Allowable assets include one lived-in home of any value, one vehicle of any value and $80,000 net worth in savings, other real estate, other vehicles, boats, property or investments. VA pensions cannot be garnished for private debt, except for child support and alimony orders (for details, see 8/5/98 testimony of VA General Counsel before House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, searchable at www.VA.gov )

Disability Standards For VA Pensions

To qualify for a pension, a  “wartime “ veteran need not show that his or her disability arose from time on active service.  But he or she nevertheless must be considered permanently and totally disabled (which generally means being “rated” 100 percent presently disabled) by  the VA under its disability regulations.---even if from a malady that started after discharge.  (But financially eligible veterans over 65 don’t have to be found medically disabled to get pensions; their age alone qualifies them.) The VA disability rules are similar to, but somewhat more liberal than, those of Social Security. Unlike Social Security, however, the VA will consider such purely “social” factors as chronic unemployability.  And, by law, it must resolve all borderline or doubtful questions in favor of the veteran.  For an example, see the quote in the sidebar below from the VA’s disability regulations on HIV disease. Disability is determined by VA review of veterans’ submitted military and even non-military medical records, physician statements, etc.---and, almost always, “ratings examinations” which the VA orders to be performed by VA physicians at VA medical centers.

Pensions For Surviving Spouses and Disabled Grown Children of Wartime Veterans

Surviving spouses of wartime veterans can also collect VA pensions if they are poor enough.  Unlike veterans, they need not show that they’re disabled themselves or even that the wartime veterans they survive were disabled or received VA pensions when they were still alive.  Even grown disabled children of wartime veterans -- again, if they’re poor enough -- can receive VA pensions, although in these cases the grown child (called a “helpless adult child” by the VA bureaucracy) must satisfy VA disability standards by submitting his or her own medical records, appearing for a VA “ratings examination” and proving that his or her own disability started before age 18. (However, such  grown disabled children need not  have been found disabled by Social Security, either as minors or adults.)  See the chart below for pension levels that apply to surviving spouses, their dependents  and  surviving  “helpless adult  children”.  (The last surviving widow of a Union Civil War soldier---who wed the veteran, who was by then in his 80s, as a much younger bride in the 1920s--received a VA pension until her own death in 2002, according to news stories. In May, 2003, VA Secretary Principi stated on C-SPAN that about 10 long-grown-up, now-quite-old “helpless adult children” of Union Civil War soldiers were then still receiving VA pensions! )

Pension Add-ons If You Need “Aid & Attendance” or Are “Housebound”

Pension levels of veterans, surviving spouses and surviving disabled grown children are increased if the VA finds they need “Aid and Attendance.”  This broad class covers almost anyone who can medically document that he needs help because of limits with mobility, housekeeping, dressing, grooming, bathing, toileting, meal preparation, errand, communication, social interaction, mental acuity, chore capabilities and other Activities of Daily Living (ADLs). Those who receive extra “Aid and Attendance” payments---while they’re intended for the costs of  medically necessary, disability--related personal care---are not required to prove they actually spend the add-ons on such care. A similar increment is added to pensions of those who the VA determines are physically “House-bound.” by their conditions This category defines itself, but is far less widely used ---and pays far less---than the “Aid and Attendance” add-on.  Pensioners cannot receive both add-ons at the same time. Authorizations for “Aid and Attendance” and “Housebound” pension increments for veterans and their surviving spouses and “helpless adult children” require the submission of medical documentation of that need and, almost always, appearance for a VA “ratings examination”. See  “Improved Pension”  Rate Tables at www.VA.gov

VA Pensions, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid

VA pensions count all family members’ income to reduce  (and, if the other income is high enough, even to eliminate) the pension payment: wages, private pensions,  regular earned Social Security  benefits, bank interest, investment income, etc.  (Again, though, in 2006 up to $8,450 yearly of a child’s earnings are disregarded.) But welfare-type payments, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), General Assistance, state Temporary Disability Assistance, Home Relief, food stamps, the value of Medicaid-purchased medical care , energy assistance and housing aid  don’t count as income for VA pension purposes.

But the reverse is not true: SSI, TANF, welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and housing programs do count that basic portion of VA pension income meant for the support of the pensioner veteran himself---but not necessarily any additional amounts meant to support spouses and dependents-- even though it is a welfare-type payment.  However, SSI,  Medicaid and welfare will attribute, or “deem”, only the pension’s dependent increment itself (and not the veteran’s own basic portion of the pension allowance) only to spouses  and children themselves when they themselves are  the SSI, Medicaid or welfare applicants. But these other assistance programs shouldn’t ever count the “Aid and Attendance” and “Housebound” add-ons to pensions as anyone’s income , since they’re  exempted as being medical care  purchases rather than welfare per se. But where this issue comes up, it almost always requires one to painstakingly explain (possibly even with written materials or notes from the VA) the “A & A” and “Housebound” payments and their purpose to get SSI, Medicaid and other welfare programs exempt them from being counted as income.

What all this means is that someone who is on SSI, Medicaid or welfare will not have their simultaneous receipt of these benefits counted as income by the VA, but SSI, Medicaid and other welfare programs may well count the VA pension or some portion of it in determining welfare eligibility for a veteran or his dependents  Since this sort of situation can get quite complex with families in which both the VA pension and SSI, welfare and/or Medicaid are received or are being applied for, expert advice from legal aid attorneys or other experienced advocates is a must. 

The VA Pension Doesn’t Count Income Spent on Unreimbursed Medical Expenses (UME)

As already mentioned, in counting income, the VA disregards (that is, it does not count toward eligibility or how much a pension payment will be) a child’s earnings up to $8,450 yearly in 2006.  In addition, income above 5% of the prior year’s  basic pension amount for a family of that size -- not inclusive of any add-ons to the pension level for “Aid and Attendance” or “Housebound” status -- is not considered (i.e., it is disregarded) in calculating eligibility for, and the amount of, pension payments if it is to be spent on medical care and related expenses.

These expenses can include costs not covered by one’s health insurance, such as co-payments and deductibles; transportation to medical care (busses, subways, taxis, tolls, car gas and mileage); premiums for Medicare and any other health insurance; services or drugs not provided by the VA, other health coverages or Medicaid; and even in some circumstances medical expenses of non-veteran family members.

For a single veteran in 2006, this means that other, ordinarily countable, income over $42.33 monthly, which is 5% of  2005’s $846.33 monthly single veteran pension rate--- if it’s to be spent on medical care--- won’t be deducted from his or her pension amount. This feature is called the “unreimbursed medical expense” or “UME” deduction, and is a way of shielding income meant for medical care from being counted as income in the VA pension eligibility budgeting steps. To adjust one’s pension to take account of income spent on medical care, use VA Form 21-8416. See the example in the sidebar below.

VA Medical Care Eligibility and Enrollment

All veterans with honorable or general discharges who have served at least 180 days of active duty can receive care at VA medical centers -- even if they aren’t disabled under VA or Social Security rules or have not served in a war zone or during wartime. High-priority, free care with no co-payments is guaranteed to those with service-connected disabilities above 50%, former prisoners of war and any veteran (whether or not he or she has a service-connected disability) for at least two years after he serves in a combat zone. (But see the sidebar below for details about, and exceptions to, the two year service minimum for those who first enlisted after September 7, 1980.)  Care available through the VA includes inpatient hospital stays, outpatient hospital services, clinic and physician services, surgery, complete laboratory and radiological services and outpatient prescription drugs.  According to a 2002-2003 GAO study, nearly one third of VA medical centers fail to offer home health services (as they’re required to do) and some improperly deny them to eligible, but non-service-connected, veterans; in response, the VA promised in 2003 to begin making home health care more widely and equally available (for details, see http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-487 ). Besides hospitals, there are also hundreds of freestanding VA outpatient clinics;  www.VA.gov lists locations within each state.

Veterans typically begin the enrollment process with interviews at VA medical facilities, bringing discharge papers (DD214s)*, documentation of any private health insurance and, for those of limited income seeking Priority Group 5 or 7 care (see below), proof of dependents, income and “net worth” (assets other than lived-in homes and one car). Enrollment is completed once veterans are assigned to a Primary Care Team (often denoted by colors: “red’, “green”, etc.) and are scheduled for Team intake examinations---after which referral to specific departments and clinics for ongoing care is arranged. Either after the enrollment interview or the intake examination, they’re issued plastic VA patient identity cards (those with purple triangles indicate the coveted, priority status of “service connected”).

But, anytime, those presenting themselves at the emergency room for genuine emergencies---even those who haven’t yet applied for or completed the regular enrollment process!--- are seen with the same medical triaging, waiting and processing used at any hospital emergency room. In practice, a not-yet-completely-enrolled veteran arriving at a VA emergency room without any documentation (proof of discharge, income and assets, health insurance papers), who verbally alleges he’s a qualified veteran will be treated for emergent care and, if medically essential for life or limb, even admitted to inpatient care. But if he doesn’t medically require inpatient admission or anything more than outpatient emergent care in the ER, he won’t be given VA-issued prescriptions on-site (although he would be given VA-issued prescriptions which he could pay for himself at commercial pharmacies). Those not-yet-fully-enrolled patients arriving at ERs with documentation of discharge, income and assets and insurance are handled the same. But, if they’re not admitted, they will also be given, then and there at the VA’s in-house pharmacy,  any prescriptions that the VA physician orders.

Assume a veteran moves from one area of the country to another---and, in particular, if he or she (perhaps only nominally and temporarily) moves from one area to another to avoid long queues in his or her own home area (for example, to take advantage of shorter waits for the initial intake examination and primary care team assignment in a less-crowded area) for Priority 5 or 7 non-service-connected veterans' health care. Does the move to the new area mean that he has to re-enroll all over again and still again go through a long wait for his initial intake examination and assignment to a "primary care team"?  No. When an already-enrolled, already-examination-intaked Priority 5 or 7 non-service-connected veteran moves to a new area, he need only appear at the nearest VA hospital or clinic for care or the routine scheduling of care, without the need to wait for a new intake examination.

Showing his VA ID card (issued at first enrollment) and mentioning his Social Security number calls up his record on the VA's nationwide computer. In such cases, the veteran would, of course, be assigned by clerical intake staff to a "new" primary care team at the new hospital or clinic (a necessity, of course, because of the move!). There would then be only the same waits for primary care appointments or specialty care referrals as are faced any other local, already-enrolled, already-intake-examined veteran. (But, of course, those "routine" waits can be, and often are, weeks and sometimes months even in the least busy VA hospitals and clinics.)

In recent years, more and more older World War II, Korea, Vietnam and Cold War veterans who don’t have prescription coverage have learned that they can get prescriptions from the VA and have begun crowding into VA hospitals. Since 1996, the VA patient caseload has grown from 2 million to well above 6 million. In  areas with many retirees---like Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Southern California, Arizona, Texas and Hawaii ---this has caused delays of many weeks, or even months, in scheduling newly-enrolling veterans for their intake examination appointments.

By late 2002, 260,000 veterans were awaiting their intake examinations. To cope  with this, in September, 2002, the VA issued interim final regulations to give first priority in scheduling these intake examinations to those veterans who have service-connected, VA-recognized disabilities; others, including those whose disabilities are non-service-connected (e.g., only recognized by Social Security), have a secondary scheduling priority for intake examinations. Nevertheless, until the Bush Administration proposed putting on some brakes in its fiscal 2006 budget, in every recent year Congress has appropriated massive increases for the VA health budget and will continue to do so to handle the crowding. Higher VA health budgets are popular with Congress: Conservatives almost always favor any sort of “military” expense; while liberals know that the VA cares for the poor, the disabled and the elderly.

VA Health Care Priority Groups, Service-Connected Veterans and Co-Payment Rules

Except for genuine emergencies, the VA prioritizes access, waiting times and medical service availability for elective and other non-emergency care, using eight priority groups:

1.      50% or more service-connected disabled veterans

2.      30% and 40% service-connected disabled veterans

3.      10% and 20% service-connected disabled veterans; former prisoners of war; Purple Heart recipients

4.      Veterans, no matter how rich, whom the VA finds to be “catastrophically disabled”, even if from a non-service-connected cause, (see sidebar below for a list of qualifying conditions); or who get pension or compensation payments for Aid and Attendance or as Housebound; those who served in war zones within the last two years, even if otherwise ineligible in another Priority Group.

5.      Non-service-connected veterans considered “poor” under VA income/asset rules (see below)

6.      Vietnam War (1962-75) Agent Orange victims and those with other designated conditions; First Gulf War (1990-91) and Iraq War (1998- ) veterans  with Gulf War Syndrome and other designated conditions.

7.      Non-service-connected veterans considered “near poor” under VA income/asset rules (see below)

8.      Non-service-connected veterans not considered poor under VA income/asset rules (see below)

    

Service-connected veterans always get free care, without even the $8 prescription co-payment, for their service-connected conditions---no matter how high their income or assets. If they have private health insurance it is never billed for treatment of service-connected conditions. But service-connected and other Priority 1 through 4 veterans must pay the co-payments of the Priority 5, 7 or 8 Groups that their incomes and assets would otherwise assign them to for treatment of non-service-connected conditions except that those rated 30% or more service-connected disabled are exempt from paying the (Priority Group 5, 7 or 8) non-prescription co-payments (even for non-service connected conditions’ care) that their incomes and assets would otherwise require of them. In other words, a service-connected veteran, no matter how high his income or assets, is exempted even from paying the applicable income/asset-based Priority 5, 7 or 8 co-payments (except for prescription co-payments) that he “deserves”, for care of a non-service-connected condition, if he’s rated 30% or more service-connected disabled. So, as a result, even service-connected and other Priority 1 through 4 veterans---especially those rated 30% or below---still do need to have their income and assets evaluated in order to be assigned the applicable Priority Group 5, 7 or 8 co-payment schedule (plus, if they’re very poor, the extra prescription co-payment exemptions mentioned below) for treatment of non service-connected conditions. Debts owed the VA for any co-payments dues can be waived on grounds of “equity and good conscience” by hospital fiscal officers (see amendment to 38CFR17.05 in the April 20, 2004 Federal Register).

Upgrading Bad Conduct, Dishonorable, Less-Than-Honorable & Undesirable Discharges; Having Discharges Reclassified To Being For Disability or Hardship

Bad conduct, dishonorable, less-than-honorable or undesirable military discharges---and “too-early” discharges that need to be rewritten to more clearly reflect that they were actually for hardship or disability reasons---which may now prevent eligibility for VA medical care, pensions, compensation or other benefits--- can be changed by applying to appropriate military services’ discharge review boards. The website www.usmilitary.about.com offers clear, concise explanations and instructions for doing so, with relevant forms and addresses. For attorneys and other professional-level advocates who need more exhaustive information, the National Veterans Legal Services Program (www.nvlsp.org) sells a comprehensive manual for about $100.

What About Those Veterans Who Seek Only VA Prescription Drugs But Want To Retain Their Own Civilian Doctors?

Some veterans may argue that enrolling in VA medical care (for example, to gain valuable prescription drug coverage) might require their giving up their own civilian doctors (whom they see through Medicare or as patients in various low income clinic programs). Actually, this isn’t so. There’s no rule denying VA eligibles the right to also see civilian doctors---and, in fact, a surprising number do so. As mentioned in the previous paragraphs, VA facilities are very crowded now precisely because many older veterans use their Medicare to see civilian doctors but then use their VA eligibility to (redundantly) see VA doctors to have the prescriptions they need ordered and written on VA prescriptions forms which they then fill at the VA for $8!

The VA’s rules still require that its prescription drugs are only available for prescriptions written by VA doctors for patients they actually see. So, to get VA-covered drugs, many, many older patients go through the motions of seeing a VA doctor to get him to write the very same prescriptions that their civilian doctors have already ordered for them---but now on VA prescription forms. VA doctors know this and are quite used to it---they quickly assess the patient’s state of health and what prescriptions the civilian doctor ordered. If everything seems reasonable, proper and necessary they quickly counter-issue the desired prescriptions on VA forms, send such patients on their way and rapidly move on to other tasks.

Of course, even abbreviated, “pro forma” VA patient visits like these are wasteful of VA resources (and the time of patients, who resent having to be seen by a second doctor just to get VA drugs). But under its current rules, the VA requires that its own doctors be responsible for decisions to issue prescriptions. Some veterans, members of the public, Congressmen and the General Accounting Office have called for considering abandoning the “see a VA doctor first” prescription rule and the VA has begun to study doing so.

The VA will allow some eligible veterans with already-issued prescriptions from private, non-VA doctors---those who've signed up for VA care but still awaiting their post-enrollment "intake" exams for at least 30 days as of 7/25/03---to fill them via its mail-order system to ease the current backlog of veterans waiting to be in-processed to the VA system.

Only those privately-prescribed drugs that are otherwise VA-covered, that are non-narcotic, that don't have to be injected and that can be mailed out can be offered by this temporary stop-gap for those veterans now queued-up in the current backlog. Those who only become "backlogged" in the future aren't eligible for this temporary, stopgap coverage unless VA rules are again changed.

The VA still maintains its requirement that, in general, VA-issued drugs can only be written by VA physicians for those veterans they actually see as patients. Nevertheless, the GAO, many Members of Congress and some veterans' organizations still want regular, ongoing access to VA-issued drugs for those who remain in treatment with private doctors---and the VA has said it is considering such a permanent change in policy.

A press release on the temporary new policy is at http://www.va.gov/opa/pressrel/PressArtInternet.cfm?id=639

The text of the temporary interim is printed in the 7/25/03 Federal Register at

http://a257.g.akamaitech.net/7/257/2422/14mar20010800/edocket.access.gpo.gov/2003/03-19011.htm

More On VA Prescriptions

VA prescriptions are issued by the prescribing doctor on a VA prescription form, which usually indicates how many refills are to be allowed. Patients then drop them off at in-house VA pharmacies---where, typically, dozens of patients are waiting at any given time. With waits that usually exceed those at commercial pharmacies, patients are given their prescriptions (they’re usually later billed by mail for their $8 co-payments). Those non-service-connected veterans claiming exemption from co-payments because they can’t afford them (see below) at this point can encounter time-consuming red tape that might well require an hour or two more of processing (and only then if the finance and pharmacy offices are open for such business). Service-connected veterans are not charged co-payments for care related to their disabilities. And, yes, in practice the difficulties VA staff face in distinguishing, Solomon-like, between care for service-connected conditions and other conditions can, and often does, result in some service-connected veterans getting co-payment exemptions for care for what may really be non-service-connected conditions.

Patients can---and, where it’s medically possible, many do---choose not to wait on-site for the prescription to be filled: They can instead opt for mail delivery service to their homes (most prescriptions not picked up on the day of submission are mailed out the next afternoon). But this can, and often does, take several days or even a week; shipments are often late or lost in the mail; and medications that are narcotics or are heat- or refrigeration-sensitive can’t be mailed in any case. Patients pay their billed co-payments by mailed checks or money orders. But those who become seriously delinquent may well then be required to make on-site, up-front cash co-payments for future prescriptions. 

The VA, as federal agency, is not subject to applicable state medication prescribing and dispensing laws. Hence, patients generally must accept what the VA physician orders; for example, they can’t (without convincing the prescribing doctor) ask for a brand name instead of a medically equivalent generic or invoke other substitution options that might be available under state law at commercial pharmacies. On the other hand, the VA permits even registered nurses and physician assistants to prescribe in many cases---even where state law might not permit this.

Moreover, the VA can, and often does, allow prescriptions to be refilled more times than is allowed at ”civilian” pharmacies. Patents can request this when first given prescriptions and as they drop them off at the VA’s on-site pharmacies. Refills can be scheduled/diaried for “automatic” mail refill or can be specifically re-ordered via telephoned- in computerized systems. Those who don’t wish to wait at the VA for their prescriptions---if they’re willing and able to pay cash--- can fill those signed by a state-licensed physician at commercial pharmacies. 

One nice advantage of the VA system is that it issues “prescriptions” (and at the often-attractive “bargain price” of only an $8 co-pay!) for a wide variety of “over-the-counter” items---bandages, dressings, braces, lotions, salves, cough medicines, digestive remedies, patent medicines, crutches, canes, walkers, wheelchairs, adult diapers and other first aid supplies---that civilians must pay full cash prices for even though they may not need physician prescriptions to buy them.  

Transportation To Distant VA Hospitals and VA Medical Travel Payments

In metropolitan areas with good, economical public transit, getting to VA medical care via buses or subways is reasonably cheap and service is reasonably frequent and accessible. But many patients living in rural or far-out suburban areas lack a family automobile, have little or no income to pay for their gas or reimburse others for rides or live in areas that aren’t served by any reliable or frequent-enough public transit or even long distance bus service (e. g., Greyhound).

For travel to medical care and compensation and pension ratings exams, the VA pays or reimburses up to an $18 monthly maximum, subject to a deductible of $3 per one way trip, at a rate of 11 cents per mile, or 17 cents for those scheduled for repeat ratings exams---if veterans are 30%-or-more service-connected disabled; getting care for any service-connected condition; VA pensioners or those with incomes under the applicable family-sized pension level; traveling to VA compensation or pension ratings exams; and, with advance authorization (unless it’s for genuine emergency care), traveling to VA medical care or ratings exams and medically require ambulance, ambulette or special handicapped van service and can’t pay the cost.  But trips to ratings exams and by medically necessary ambulance, ambulette and handicapped vans aren’t subject to the $3 deductible. Submission of appropriate records and receipts is necessary; see VA hospital and clinic travel and/or finance offices for details and arrangements.

The Disabled American Veterans (www.DAV.org), a nationwide non-profit organization, provides daily, free door-to-door van transport service to disabled and indigent veterans who otherwise can’t get to VA medical appointments. In many areas, only one morning “inbound” and one late afternoon “outbound” trip is offered---meaning that, even for brief appointments, whole days are consumed. On its website, the key terms “transportation network”, “hospital coordinator” and “volunteer services” refer one to a hospital-by-hospital listing of, and telephone numbers for, those DAV workers who supervise the van transport system serving each hospital. They have details about local van service, scheduling, reservations and priorities. The drivers are usually volunteers—as are many of the transport coordinators. Private donations fund the system.

Case Management and Patient Advocacy for VA Patients

Because the VA is a classical large, often-impersonal bureaucracy patients’ needs can sometimes be overlooked or forgotten: Mail-ordered prescriptions may not come on time or at all; mail-order and other prescriptions may expire, their expiration perhaps overlooked by busy physicians; and more vulnerable, less self-proactive patients may not get the detailed case management and treatment/drug regimen training that they need.

While the VA benefits system does offer appeals and hearings for those who are aggrieved, it is attuned almost exclusively to the needs of those seeking money Pension and Compensation payments rather than quality medical care and related supportive services. Veterans have one year after the denial of a benefit, or being given a substandard service, to appeal in writing to their servicing VA Regional Office, using VA forms available at www.VA.gov or even by simply writing a letter. Appeals are backlogged by many hundreds of thousands and typically take two years or more to be resolved. Hence, the VA appeals system isn’t timely enough to help with medical care quality complaints.

More vulnerable veterans—those who are frail, are intellectually-challenged, have limited education, are confused or intimidated by the massive, complex VA system, or need detailed case management, guidance and assistance with appointment schedules, treatment orders or drug therapy regimens--- can seek help from, or be referred to: the “service representatives” (middle-aged and older veteran volunteers from groups like the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, etc. who work from offices in VA hospitals—although what skills they have are more often focused on Pensions and Compensation questions); Patient Advocates and Ombudsmen are on staff in VA hospitals just as they are in civilian hospitals and handle patient complaints about treatment and quality of care; and---above all !—VA hospitals’ own medical Social Work departments  offer treatment-related supportive counseling and services to all VA patients, including even those treated by outpatient clinical departments.   

The VA medical care system, at least theoretically, requires one to secure unscheduled or between-appointments medical care through the Emergency Room. But that can take many hours’ wait, only to be seen by a generalist physician unfamiliar with the patient’s individual care. He can (at most) offer temporary care solutions and impermanent, stopgap prescriptions for expired, lost-in-the-mail or about-to-expire medications. Some more proactive patients successfully deal with this inevitable eventuality by chatting up acquaintance-ships with their main treating clinical department’s receptionists, clerks, nurses and social workers. These contacts can then squeeze them in for last-minute appointments or arrange to have a physician renew an expiring prescription or write a stopgap prescription for one that’s lost or delayed in the mail.  

Special Rules For VA-Paid Care at Non-VA Facilities

Note that (except for rare, arranged-in-advance purchases of specialty care at non-VA hospitals) the VA does not pay for care at non-VA facilities, with three exceptions: 

First, with advance permission, some veterans—usually, only those who get service-connected compensation benefits (see below)--- can be treated by selected non-VA medical staff or facilities in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Idaho and parts of central Florida under special, limited pilot programs.

Secondly, service-connected compensationers--but not other veterans—can with advance permission be treated by approved foreign medical providers and foreign US military medical facilities for emergencies when overseas. Contact the VA Foreign Medical program office, P.O> Box 65021, Denver, CO 80206-9021 (303) 331-7590 (call [877] 345-8179 if living or traveling in Australia, Britain, Costa Rica, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Panama or Spain). There are numerous authorization and billing forms which are required. Request a copy of the pamphlet “Department of Veterans Affairs Foreign Medical Services Program”. Nevertheless, in spite of the restriction of care at overseas US military medical facilities only to service-connected compensationers who have secured advance permission, there are anecdotal reports that other veterans who have VA patient identity cards have secured emergency care at overseas U.S. military medical facilities. This is because non-VA-employed military hospital clerks there understandably have trouble mastering the VA’s complex (and, to them, alien) rules. Hence, they often fail to distinguish between the classes of eligible and ineligible VA patient identity cardholders.

Lastly, any otherwise-eligible veterans----but only if (1) they have already enrolled for VA health benefits; (2) have actually already received some VA treatment within the last 24 months; and (3) are not covered by private health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid----can receive emergency care paid for by the VA at a non-VA hospital in the US when 1) such a hospital is nearer than a VA one and 2) delaying care to reach a more distant VA facility (under a “prudent person” standard) would seriously endanger life or health. Ambulance and related emergency medical services which appear necessary (also under a “prudent layperson” standard) can likewise be covered.  In cases of inpatient admission or emergency room treatment, the veteran, his family, his legal representative or the non-VA facility itself must get authorization from the veteran’s regular VA clinical staff within 48 hours. That VA staff also decides when the patient is medically ready for discharge or transfer to a VA facility---after which VA liability to pay for care at a non-VA facility ends.

Coverage of Eyeglasses, Hearing Aids & Related Exams and Dental Services

The VA not only covers eye examinations and audiology tests and writes eyeglass and hearing aid prescriptions for its eligible patients. In many cases it also actually provides eyeglasses and hearing aids---even for some non-service-connected Priority 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 patients. Veterans' Health Administration Directive 2002-039 of July 5, 2002 [paragraph 4.a.(1)] authorizes eyeglasses and hearing aids for:

* those getting service-connected compensation for any reason or at any percentage;

* former prisoners of war;

* those getting Housebound or Aid and Attendance increments to needs-based disability Pensions;

* those needing eyeglasses or hearing aids due to any other (even non-service-connected)   significant medical cause, such as those that limit Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) ; and

* those with any other functional or cognitive impairment-- as shown by ADL deficiency(ies) --who need eyeglasses or hearing aids to participate in their own care.

Replacements are allowed in cases of loss and breakage and for new or changed prescriptions. Hearing aids, without a prescription change or loss, must last 4 years. Issuance of spares is determined by the audiiologist or eye care specialist. Yet in spite of this directive, the VA website www.VA.gov (accessed 1/9/04) states that eyeglasses and hearing aids are provided only to service-connected veterans, to former prisoners of war and to some other more limited categories.

[Middle class persons only recently plunged into poverty by disability or illness often continue to think that eyeglasses for reading and driving can only be prescribed and purchased through professional optometrists and opticians (eyeglass stores).  Yet, as the long-term poor already know well, such outlets as Sears, Target, WalMart, CVS, Wahgreen’s, Dollar Stores, Rexall, Rite-Aid and Eckard’s actually sell off-the-rack, ready-to-wear glasses, in a wide variety of differing strengths, for reading and driving at far better prices ($10 to $20 (or even much less) a pair vs. $120 and up at optician stores). In fact, the American Academy of Ophthalmology finds that “Ready-to-wear reading glasses are effective, safe and economical. Self-selection and over-the-counter purchase of these glasses appears to be medically acceptable, cost-effective and in the best overall interest of the public.”  But while these glasses work well for those with simple prescriptions---or who only seek “spares” for  contact lenses they usually wear---they are not adequate for those with astigmatism; those who need different strength prescriptions in each eye; or those whose eyes are very close together or far apart. Since ready-to-wear glasses are usually labeled with their strengths, wise shoppers can and should seek strengths that match prescriptions written for them by physician-ophthalmologists. Optometrists can also prescribe---but they’ll likely try to sell one their own higher-priced “professional” glasses.]    

Dental services ordinarily are offered by the VA only to 100% disabled , service-connected veterans, those whose service-connected conditions include dental problems and those held as prisoners of war for at least 90 days; but other, non-service-connected veterans may apply, only within 90 days of discharge from active duty, to get dental treatment that wasn’t completed while on active duty. Often, the VA then authorizes care with selected private dentists.

Those not eligible for VA eye care might contact the Seniors’ Eyecare Program  ( www.eyecareamerica.org ; 800-222-3937) if they’re limited income citizens or legal aliens over 65; it offers some limited eye care---although not eyeglasses or eyeglass prescriptions. Local Lions’ Clubs www.lionsclubs.org , United Way affiliates www.unitedway.org , Salvation Army chapters www.salvationarmyusa.org and, above all, the Lenscrafters’ Gift of Sight Program ( www.lenscrafters.com/gos.html; 800-541-5367) sometimes offer help with eye exams, eyeglass prescriptions and/or eyeglasses.

The American Academy of Otolaryngology (www.entnet.org/healthinfo/hearing) lists some resources for free or discounted hearing exams and hearing aid resources---as do some Easter Seal Society (www.EasterSeals.org) groups. The Starkey Hearing Foundation (www.starkey.com; 800-328-8602) provides over 10,000 hearing aids a year to the needy using its own privately-set eligibility rules.

Most state Medicaid programs deny dental care (other than extractions to relieve pain),  dentures, eyeglasses and hearing aids to adults. Go to www.kff.org/medicaidbenefits  for states’ Medicaid coverage of these services. In addition, the report “State of Decay” at www.oralhealthamerica.org surveys whether, and to what extent, each state Medicaid program covers adult dental services. However, the National Association of Dentistry for the Handicapped (www.nadh.org; 303-573-0264) organizes dentist volunteers to give free dental care to poor disabled persons in at least 32 states.  Almost all dental schools offer heavily discounted dental care by student dentists whose work is supervised by dental professors; the American Dental Association (www.ADA.org; 312-440-2500) has a list of all American dental colleges. The ADA (www.ADA.org ; 312-440-2500) enlists dentist volunteers to give free care to the needy aged in its Access to Oral Health Care for Older Americans program.

Medical Care Rules For Priority Group 5 Income, Assets and Co-Payments

In 2006, single veterans with annual incomes below $25,841.13, or $2,153.34 monthly ----known as Priority Group 5---- are eligible for free care without any co-payments (except for $8 per prescription), after those with service-connected and “catastrophic” disabilities, former prisoners of war, those who served in combat zones within the past two years and certain other priority classes are served. ($430.92 more monthly is allowed for one dependent, $173.40 more for a second and $144.50 more monthly for each additional one; here, too, in 2006 the first $8,450 of a child’s earnings is not counted.) Allowable assets per family include a lived-in home of any value, one vehicle of any value and $80,000 of “net worth” in other vehicles, boats, bank accounts, other property, investments, etc.. If a veteran does happen to have private health insurance, the VA will bill the plan for what it can, but it will not bill the veteran if he or she has income below this level, except for the $8 prescription co-payment. 

Suspending All Prescription Co-pays for the Very Neediest Veterans

Priority Group 2 through 6 veterans’ prescription co-payments can be suspended for the rest of the year once they incur $960 of such charges in 2006—as is also true for any applicable prescription co-payments that might otherwise be required of 40%-or-less service-connected disabled veterans or for treatment of a service-connected disabled veteran’s non-service-connected condition.  In addition, all veterans with incomes under the prior year’s applicable basic pension level (e.g., in 2006, $846.83 monthly for a single veteran) are exempt from any  prescription co-payments.  When first enrolling for VA care, those under this income level should be sure to insist that their enrollment file specifies that they’re designated as co-payment-exempt  and those who originally enrolled at higher income levels---but whose income later falls to within the co-payment exemption  income range---should re-visit the VA hospital or clinic’s enrollment/eligibility office with revised, current proofs of income to request that their records be corrected to now exempt them from drug co-payments.

In early February, 2004, VA Secretary Principi asked Congress for authority to raise the prescription co-payment exemption income level by an amount equal to the prior year’s pension Aid and Attendance incremental payment (which would have been $566.08 more monthly in 2006), although this proposal could  be withdrawn by his more conservative successor, James Nicholson. Observers say this is the only eligibility- or co-pay-related Administration proposal likely to pass Congress. The  Administration also proposed legislation in both its fiscal 2005 and 2006 budgets to raise drug co-pays for Priority Groups  7 and 8, and for treatment of non-service-connected conditions of service-connected disabled veterans, from $8 to $15 and  to charge  a yearly “enrollment fee” of $250 to Priority 7 and 8 veterans. These plans are opposed by the major veterans groups and by some GOP and all Democratic members of  Congress---but the White House and Congressional GOP leaders  replaced House Veterans Chairman Christopher Smith (NJ) and Senate Veterans Chairman Arlen Spector (PA) with the more reliably conservative Rep. Steve Buyer (IN) and Sen. Larry Craig (ID) .

Debts owed to the VA for any co-payments can be waived on grounds of “equity and good conscience” by hospital fiscal officers (see amendment to 38CFR17.05 in the April 20, 2004 Federal Register).

“Space Available” Care With Added, Small Co-Pays For “Wealthier” Priority Group 7 Veterans

After higher-priority cases such as service-connected disabled veterans, former prisoners of war and lower income Priority Group 5 veterans are served, VA medical centers may at their option also give care to Priority Group 7 veterans----those non-service-connected veterans whose incomes exceed the Priority 5 eligibility levels but are below Priority 8 levels.  Priority 7 “net worth” asset levels are the same as for Priority 5, however---namely, $80,000, not counting household goods, a lived-in home of any value and one vehicle of any value.. (The special limits for those who first enlisted after 9/7/80 apply here too; see the accompanying sidebar.) In Priority 7 cases, some other co-payments are charged---$0 for preventive care outpatient appointments, $15 per primary care outpatient encounter, $50 per specialty care outpatient encounter and $2 per night plus $190.80 for the first inpatient hospital admission in 2006 (and $95.40 plus $2 per night for most subsequent admissions within 2006)---but this is still far, far cheaper than it would be for those who’d otherwise need to pay full costs in cash or do without.  And if these “near-poor” veterans do happen to have some private health insurance, the payments from the insurance to the VA for the care are counted off the amount the veteran must pay in co-payments.  See the accompanying chart of VA medical care co-payments for Priority Group 7 veterans.

“Space Available” Care with Even Bigger Co-pays for Even Wealthier Priority Group 8 Veterans

On October 1, 2002, the VA created a new Priority Group 8 for health care eligibility to implement the VA Health Care Programs Enhancement Act, which was enacted in January, 2002. Priority 8 patients are those non-service-connected veterans with a “net worth” in assets over $80,000 (not counting household goods, a lived-in home of any value and one vehicle of any value) and/or income over the levels used by HUD as the upper limits for lower income housing assistance eligibility. The HUD levels vary state-by-state, by Standard Metropolitan Statistical Areas (SMSAs) within states and by family size, depending upon regional costs-of-living (for one person, they generally range from about $29,000 yearly to about $37,000, with still higher incomes allowed for each dependent). See the sidebar below about how to calculate a local area’s Priority 8 income level.

The family-sized upper income limit for lower income housing assistance in a locality is now the maximum income allowed for Priority 7. Non-service-connected veterans’ with income ABOVE this income level are now in Priority Group 8 !  (Those uncomfortable with the complex calculations set forth in the sidebar below can call 1-800-245-2691 and at least attempt to get the low-paid, clerical-level contractor telephone bank employees answering to provide locality-specific [and family-sized] upper income limits for federal lower income housing assistance.)

Priority 8 patients must make co-payments of $8 per prescription, $15 to $50 per outpatient encounter, $952 plus $10 per night for the first inpatient hospital stay in 2006 and $476 plus $10 per night for most subsequent hospitalizations within 2006. Here, too, any private health insurance which a veteran has is billed---and any payments the VA receives from the insurance are counted off what he owes for co-payments.

Moreover, on January 17, 2003, the VA published Interim Final Regulations in the Federal Register (Vol. 68, No. 12, pp.2669-2673) immediately suspending further enrollment of Priority 8 veterans. But those veterans now classified as Priority 8 who are already enrolled ---plus those who already and originally qualified for Priority Groups 4, 5, 6 or 7 but whose income or assets only later rise into the Priority Group 8 range---are  "grandfathered-in".

“Compensation” For Veterans with “Service-Connected” Full or Partial Disabilities

The VA pays “compensation” to veterans whose disabilities arose from their time in active service -- even if off-base, off-duty or on leave and whether or not overseas or during wartime. These “service-connected” disabilities can include disease or injury that a veteran proves was contracted during service, even if disabling symptoms only appear after discharge. (Conditions for which treatment is sought and documented within one year of discharge can be presumed to be service-connected too, even in the absence of contemporaneous medical records from the actual calendar periods of active duty.)  Military medical records—and even evidence from non-military sources---can be used to demonstrate this. Here too, appearing for VA “ratings examinations” is almost always required as well. It’s usually a long, legalistic process.  But veterans who can demonstrate any percent of service-connected disability are entitled to basic lifetime tax-free monthly payments.

In 2006, veterans can get monthly service-connected compensation awards for disabilities that cause partial incapacity in increments of 10% ($112), 20% ($218), 30% ($337), 40% ($485), 50% ($690), 60% ($873), 70% ($1,099), 80% ($1277) or 90% ($1436)---and, of course, at a full 100% ($2393). Rules in force since early 2003 provide that in-country Vietnam veterans who now have diabetes are presumed automatically to be service-connected disabled if rated at least10% (20% if also on regular medication for diabetes), with higher ratings possible for serious diabetic complications (amputations, serious and recurrent healing deficiencies, peripheral neuropathy, poor circulation, cardiovascular and kidney problems, etc.). Current tracheal, laryngeal, bronchial and lung cancers and chronic lymphocytic leukemia of in-country Vietnam War veterans can be presumed to be service-connected due to exposure to Agent Orange. Veterans of the First Gulf War (1990-91) who now have ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) are automatically presumed to have a service-connected disability. In 2004, the VA also began automatically presuming multiple sclerosis in Vietnam and post-Vietnam war zone veterans as being service-connected. The more elusive, difficult-to-diagnose-and-document  “Gulf War Syndrome” conditions of those who served in or near the First Gulf War’s or the Iraq or Afghanistan Wars’ combat zones in many cases can also merit compensation awards---as can some cirrhosis cases.

Those rated at 30% or more service-connected disabled can have dependent allowances added to their compensation payments, and, if they medically qualify for it, the compensation program’s own Aid and Attendance enhancement (a benefit with similar qualification rules, but distinct from, that for pensioners) of  $603 (2001 figure) for the veteran, and $37 to $122 in 2006 for an  A & A-qualified invalid spouse  (both of which require submission of medical documentation and a VA ratings examination). In addition to basic dependent increments for each child under age 18 for veterans  rated 30% or more, the compensation program also pays an additional $19 to $207 monthly in 2005 (and slightly more in 2006) for each child over 18 attending school, college or trade school, with rates rising with the percentage of disability. See the Rate Tables under “Compensation and Benefits” at www.VA..gov for details. Compensation is not a needs-based program like pensions, so compensationers can have any amount in other income, earnings or assets. Compensation benefits, like pensions, are rounded down to the next whole dollar in  making actual payments.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, HIV/AIDS and “Illegal” Activities

VA compensation claims for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD, which are continuing and seemingly permanent psychological and behavioral incapacities resulting from events---often, but not always, in combat---while in military service) are well-known as part of the Vietnam veterans’ story, but PTSD also afflicts other veterans too. Resources and suggestions for assembling and documenting PTSD claims appear at www.VA.gov , www.vva.org , www.ncptsd.org and at other websites by entering “PTSD” and “DSM-IV” into search engines.

By law, the VA does not recognize alcoholism or drug addiction as compensable disabilities themselves (nor does it for pensions either).  However, underlying psychological disabilities that might give rise to alcoholism or drug addiction as symptoms  are compensable---and, in those cases, alcoholism or drug addiction histories can even serve as symptom evidence to buttress such claims.

Injuries or illnesses resulting from illegal activities can never, under the law, be compensable. But, in practice, only those illegal activities which are facially quite obvious---or are (foolishly) voluntarily admitted to by a service person while still on active duty (and so officially recorded) , or by a veteran in the unlikely event that VA staff directly question him on this point during claim processing---are actually considered (or, much less, are formally adjudicated as) illegal. For at least a decade the military services have pre-screened new recruits for the HIV virus and they’ve also conducted periodic re-testings of those on duty as well. As a result, few of more recent veterans ever submit qualifying evidence (e.g., positive tests for the HIV virus contemporaneous with military service time) that demonstrates a seroconversion before discharge.

But more veterans who are HIV-positive and who served before the adoption of comprehensive military HIV blood tests (before 1990 or so) can get compensation now if they submit qualifying, contemporaneous medical evidence of being positive, having recognized HIV symptoms or seroconverting while on active duty. For example, the VA estimates that approximately 2,800 veterans have contracted HIV through blood transfusions while on active duty, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press (3/10/04). And this can be so in spite of the apparent roadblock that the ban on illegal activity (e.g., homosexual activity; sharing needles while using illegal drugs, etc.) seems to impose because, as mentioned above, only facially obvious, officially adjudicated or voluntarily admitted-to events, in practice, come under the “illegal activities” ban..

(For example, an active duty serviceman paralyzed by a gunshot during a shootout with police as he robbed a bank would probably be denied compensation; but a serviceman who became HIV-positive while on active duty would not be denied compensation, absent any obvious, compelling, dramatic or voluntary evidence or admission to particular “illegal” activities. Even if directly asked, there are other believable explanations—“I was in some bar fights with a lot of biting and blood”; “I think I once got a transfusion after I was in a car accident, but it was so long ago that I forget exactly where and when”; “ I used to see lots of (female) prostitutes”; “I just knew sitting on those dirty public rest room toilet seats could give me something”, etc.)

Service-Connected Veterans’ Dependents & Survivors & Their Medical Coverage

The compensation payments go up for those with dependents and include not only priority VA medical care for the veteran himself, but also---only for 100% service-connected disabled veterans or those who die on active service--- medical coverage for dependents and survivors in the VA’s CHAMPVA medical insurance plan.  The CHAMPVA medical plan is premium-free for those who are eligible, is not medically-underwritten (there are no “pre-existing condition” restrictions and no medical history questionnaires, blood tests or exams are needed to qualify) and it offers coverage similar to major medical plans of large employers, including some deductibles and co-payments.

It can even continue to cover now-grown, but first-disabled-as-minors (“helpless adult”) children, including even after the death of the veteran and even after that of his or her surviving spouse! Where families with such grown disabled children only tardily discover the existence of this lifetime coverage, they can enroll late but only for prospective coverage (past medical coverage is lost). But, again, note that CHAMPVA is only for dependents and survivors of 100% service-connected disabled compensationers: Even though those still-living veterans with just 30% service-connected disability ratings can get dependent payment allowances added to their compensation checks, they cannot thereby qualify those dependents for CHAMPVA. And it’s also important to note that disabled wartime  pensioners’ (as opposed to compensationsers’) dependents and survivors are not eligible for CHAMPVA or any other VA care either---although they can often get some medical expenses met by the Pension system’s Unreimbursed Medical Expenses (UME) provisions if they can’t get Medicaid or other coverage.

DIC Payments For Surviving Spouses and Children of 100% Service-Connected Disabled Veterans

Surviving spouses of deceased service-connected 100% disabled veterans---or those who die on active duty-- get payments called Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC), as well as premium-free, lifetime continued CHAMPVA health coverage, even if they themselves aren’t disabled at all. (See the CHAMPVA pages at www.VA.gov.) For a single surviving spouse widowed after 1993, the monthly payment is $993 in 2005; $247 more is paid for each   dependent child. An additional increment of  $213 more was paid in 2005 to the surviving spouse if a married veteran lived with her at least 10 years before his death while, or as a result of being, 100% disabled;  or at least 5 years before his death after he became so disabled; or at least one year before his death if he was a prisoner of war.

Surviving DIC spouses, if medically qualified themselves (by submission of medical records and through a VA “ratings” examination), can also get added DIC allowances of $247 for their own Aid and Attendance or $118 if Housebound themselves (2005). In addition to the above amounts, the Veterans Benefits Improvement Act of 2004, HR 3936, adds still another $250 extra DIC payment where surviving spouses have one or more dependent children. Here too, as with Pensions, a “helpless adult child” DIC payment is made to grown, 100% disabled children first incapacitated as minors (which requires submission of medical records and VA ratings exams). See the Compensation and DIC Rate Tables at www.VA.gov. DIC benefits, like pensions and compensation, are  rounded down to the next whole dollar in making actual payments.

Compensation & DIC Are Tax-Free, Non-Garnishable, Non-Welfare Benefits

Compensation and DIC benefits are tax-free, and are not needs-based like “pensions”. One can have additional income without affecting the payment.  Compensation and DIC are tax-free and are not themselves welfare-type payments, so need-based programs such as SSI, Medicaid, housing and other welfare programs can and do count them as income. VA compensation and DIC benefits can’t be garnished for any private debt---except for child support and alimony orders and also except for private debt garnishments ordered in those rare, unusual cases where a portion of compensation is being received in lieu of career military retired pay (because a portion of military active and retired pay is garnishable for private debt). For details, see 8/5/98 testimony of VA General Counsel before House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which is searchable at www.VA.gov .

Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI), Veterans’ Group Life Insurance (VGLI), Service-Disabled Veterans’ Life Insurance (SDVLI) and Other Active Duty Death Benefits for Survivors

Veterans being discharged have the right to retain life insurance policies of up to $400,000 in 2006, with some of that coverage premium-free for those in combat zones (with the premium-free combat zone portion of up to $400,000 retroactive to 2001). These policies are issued in those  amounts by the Servicemembers Group Life Insurance (SGLI) plan to almost all active duty service persons, including activated Reservists and Guardsmen, and they can be converted later without medical underwriting (such as pre-existing condition restrictions, blood tests or health questionnaires) within 120 days of discharge into Veterans Group Life Insurance (VGLI) or private individual policies through the Office of Servicemen’s Group Life Insurance, at 213 Washington Street, Newark, NJ 07102.  Those who are totally disabled at the time of discharge have up to one year to convert.  SGLI and VGLI have small, economical premiums---which one can  have automatically deducted from active military pay, VA pension, VA compensation and military retirement (although one must pay individual conversion policy premiums directly oneself).

SGLI-  and VGLI- insured service members and veterans can also purchase---often without medical underwriting (medical exams, medical history questions, etc.), if they enroll at the first opportunity---life insurance for their spouses in $10,000 increments up to $100,000 and smaller amounts for their children.

Both SGLI and VGLI policies on service members and veterans can be “accelerated” to pay out, before death, up to 50% of the death benefit, to those who submit physicians’ statements certifying a life expectancy of 9 months or less. (Unless they’re totally unreasonable-seeming  facially, physicians’ statements are accepted without further inquiry; there’s no penalty if the insured person actually lives longer; and the remaining insurance death benefit amount stays in force for later payment to beneficiaries or--if the policyholder so desires-- for conversion of the remainder death benefit amount to a private, individual whole life insurance policy.) SGLI policies (at, or shortly after, discharge) and VGLI policies (at any time) can be converted without any medical underwriting, through participating insurers, into individual whole life policies---albeit with the typically somewhat higher private policy premium rates--- that are then suitable for “viatication” (i.e., the “sale” of life insurance benefits, at a discounted price below the full face death benefit amount, to investors by policy-holders who are terminally ill, need nursing or home health care or are simply over age 62). To accelerate or convert a SGLI or VGLI policy, contact the SGLI/VGLI office in Newark, which can also provide lists of participating insurers for conversion.

Those found to be at least partially disabled for service-connected compensation purposes (but not just for pensions) can get $10,000 in Service Disabled Veterans Life Insurance (SDVLI)--- separate and apart from, and in addition to, whatever SGLI or VGLI insurance they might or might not have-- by applying for it within two years of their service-connected disability compensation award. And if the SGLI/VGLI office finds that they are now totally disabled and unable to work-----whether from a service-connected, compensable cause or, indeed, any other cause---- they may purchase $20,000 more of SDVLI.  (This insurance is partially medically underwritten in that it is designed to ignore the service-connected medical disability of the veteran—but not other medical conditions—in determining if, and for how much in premiums, the veteran can get this life insurance.) Unlike SGLI and VGLI, SDVLI policies can not be converted, accelerated or viaticated—although, of course, they can provide well for loved ones after death. 

Yet it may also be possible for still-living, seriously ill veterans with SDVLI (or other policies which can’t readily or completely be sold or accelerated) to secure private loans, from better-off relatives or acquaintances with whom they have long-standing, trusted relationships, in exchange for naming that person the life insurance beneficiary.  While such arrangements would not always be ironclad-enforceable under the law, they can work out where the insured person has the full trust of a relative, friend, former employer or other person with cash to advance for such a loan or with the ability to raise that cash (e.g., through a reverse home mortgage, in the case of a cash-poor older, but home-owning, relative).

The premiums for SDVLI are very, very low (for example, only about $32 monthly for a male aged 55 for the additional $20,000), and the first $10,000 is free for those rated 100-percent disabled. The SGLI/VGLI office in Newark has further details.

In addition to the life insurance, all military branches pay tax-free “death gratuities” of $12,420---raised in 2005 to $100,000, but only for those dying in the actual line of duty, with the raise retroactive to 2001--- who die while on active duty (which therefore can cover non-war zone and non-combat deaths, but not if off-duty). Such survivors also get up to 6 months of the service member’s housing allowances after the death, full coverage of burial costs, an income tax reduction for at least one year, tax breaks on survivors’ post-death home sales and child care, generous veteran’s preferences for federal (and often state and local) civil service jobs, VA educational benefits for both surviving spouses and children, some military “space-available” travel and premium-free Tricare health coverage (see www.osd.Tricare.mil for details) of survivors for at least 3 years (and in any case they can alternatively get virtually identical, premium free, lifetime CHAMPVA health coverage instead of Tricare or in the very unlikely event that Tricare coverage ends), plus many other applicable VA and even state veteran survivor benefits. See the CHAMPVA pages at www.VA.gov, www.osd.Tricare.mil, http://www.moaa.org/benefitdsinfo/default.asp, “Armed Forces Tax Benefits” at www.irs.gov and state veterans’ offices listed at www.NASDVA.org for details. 

Vocational Rehabilitation, Education and Job Placement

In addition to the quite well-known VA educational benefits for college, the VA also offers vocational rehabilitation and related job training, education and placement services to those who receive compensation for service-connected disabilities. Originally, only those non-service-connected pensioners whose pensions started before December 31, 1995 were eligible for these services . But a bill enacted at the end of  2003 now also permits  any qualified pensioner under age 45 to receive vocational rehabilitation services during five years after enactment. Vocational rehabilitation services can include job readiness counseling, career evaluation, job placement, career training, on-the-job training, and, in some instances, even college courses.

Those in a full-time program received benefits of up to about $474.27 monthly in 2004 (with an additional $114.03 for one dependent, $104.95 more for a second dependent and $50.54 still more for each additional one; these rates may well have risen by cost-of-living increases for 2005 and 2006), and the VA can also cover books, fees, transportation, tutoring and other miscellaneous costs.  Generally, VA vocational rehabilitation programs must be completed within 48 months; in exceptional cases, an additional 18 months are allowed.  In some instances, living allowances over and above compensation and pension levels may be authorized. 

Once a veteran successfully completes a vocational rehabilitation program and is successfully and gainfully engaged in full-time work for one to 12 months, compensation and/or pension benefits can be ended; priority medical care eligibility continues, however.

Filing Applications for VA Benefits and Appealing Denials

Application forms for VA pensions, compensation, medical care and education benefits are available at VA hospitals, clinics, outreach centers and Regional offices and at www.VA.gov and can be downloaded and printed off that site. (One can even fill out applications and apply on-line at www.VA.gov.) To apply for medical care, visit the “Eligibility Office” at any VA hospital (listed at www.VA.gov ) in person, bringing one’s DD Form 214, identification, birth and marriage certificates for all family members, written proof of family income and assets and health insurance papers. Applications for pensions, compensation and other benefits are ordinarily made by mail to the VA Regional Office (locate the nearest one at www.VA.gov).

Help with applications and appeals is available from state veterans’ agencies for free (see www.NASDVA.com). In addition, “service representatives”---sometimes professional staff, but more often middle-aged and older veteran volunteer specialists, from groups like the American Legion (www.legion.org ), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (www.VFW.org ), the Disabled American Veterans (www.DAV.org), and the Vietnam Veterans of America (www.VVA.org )---are given space to counsel veterans at many VA Regional Offices and almost all VA hospitals. Ask for the “service representative”.

Some veteran advocates feel that the expertise of state veterans’ advocates and service representatives isn’t sufficient for more complex cases or those requiring assembly of detailed medical data. More difficult applications and appeals might be handled---for those who qualify as poor enough---by local legal aid offices skilled with VA benefits. But sadly, few legal aid offices are skilled or experienced with VA benefits.

Yet hiring a private or paid lawyer or advocate for yourself during the application and the administrative appeals process is almost impossible because of a Civil War-era federal law which forbids lawyers or anyone else from charging more than $10 to help with veterans’ benefit cases.  (This law was passed to prevent widespread, serious abuses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) However, if you do lose your final administrative appeal at the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, an amendment to the law lets you then pay a lawyer regular (and higher) fees to appeal further to the Court of Veterans’ Appeals and beyond. To locate such paid lawyers specializing in VA court appeals, call the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates at (800) 810-8387 (see its website at www.vetadvocates.com) or the Court at (800) 869-8654. Even if you have no money, it is sometimes possible to hire a lawyer on a “contingency” basis (the lawyer gets a percentage, usually 20%, of your back-due benefits if you win, and nothing if you lose).       

    

To get detailed instructions yourself for how to fill out a veterans benefits application and assemble medical evidence (especially for compensation, pensions and DIC dependents’ payments) get a copy of  “The Vietnam Veterans of America’s Guide on VA Claims and Appeals from http://www.vva.org or by calling (301) 585-4000. Soldiers seriously wounded in combat can get free, expert, special advocacy help with enrolling for all benefits from the joint Army- and VA-sponsored Disabled Soldier Support System (DS3), on the web at www.armyds3.org ; or by calling 800-833-6622.

In addition, to strengthen and/or raise the rating percentage for a service-connected compensation claim, complete a Veteran’s Application for Increased Compensation Based on Unemployability, Form 21-8940; see http://www.vba.va.gov/pubs/forms/21-8940.pdf; if the link doesn't work, go to www.VA.gov, then to Compensation, then to "Forms', then to "Forms series 21- " to find it. This “Individual Uemployability” or “IU” provision is often useful for raising disability ratings of only 60%, 70%, 80% or 90% to a full, and much more lucrative, 100%---which can be above what they’d otherwise be, on the medical evidence alone, for those who’ve been largely unemployable because of, or after suffering, their service-connected impairment. (By 2005, over 200,000 veterans had their ratings artificially raised to 100% in this way, bringing them over $4 billion more in added, “extra” compensation payments. As a result, by late 2005 both the VA and GOP-chaired Congressional veterans’ committees began studying ways to limit such “extra”, possibly “undeserved”, compensation amounts.) And while on its face Form 21-8940 isn’t ordinarily used for wartime non-service-connected disability pension claims too, submitting it with a pension claim that’s based only on an otherwise insufficient, less-than-100% -ratable disability or one that’s hard to prove or shaky certainly can’t hurt.

Generally, a denial of benefits or medical care eligibility--- or complaints about medical care quality or the timeliness or adequacy of medical specialty referrals--- must be appealed within one year of the denial to the VA Regional Office (see www.VA.gov for locations). But at any given time, this VA appeals system is overwhelmed and backlogged with hundreds of thousands compensation, pension and DIC income benefit appeals which often take two or more years to decide. (This is because medical care complaints are handled by the same overcrowded appeals system as the income benefits cases.)

By law, veterans’ access to VA medical care is ranked by statutorily-defined “Priorities” (1 through 8). Patients are served only subject to the law’s prioritization and care access, as a matter of basic reality, is constrained by the (limited) funds appropriated by Congress. Priority 5, 7 and 8 patients have many others who have priority before them---“service connected” disabled veterans, former prisoners of war, Medal of Honor winners, the “catastrophically disabled”, recent returnees from combat zones and so on. This means that long waits for care, or specialty referrals, or lack of wide provider choices-- and other medical “amenity” standards that would ordinarily be applicable within a civilian entitlement medical care program context-- simply don’t have traction in the VA system. Again, VA care is prioritized, space-available care and not an entitlement! Moreover, even valid legal claims against the VA for substandard or negligent care are seriously limited or prohibited by the legal doctrine of sovereign immunity. These realities mean that appeal rights---while they do nominally apply to medical care as well as other VA benefits---don’t always offer timely or adequate redress.

VA’s Post-Vietnam Era Education Benefits for Veterans and Survivors of Those Dying in/from Service

The VA full-time student education benefit was a maximum $1,004 monthly for 2005 for those who served at least 3 years and $816 for those who served less time. The Veterans Education and Benefits Expansion Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-103), increased the underlying, original “Montgomery GI Bill” program for post-Vietnam Era veterans and raised the lifetime benefit total to $35,460 on  October 1, 2003.

Under the GI Bill program, a military servicemember who elects to participate in the program must pay $100 a month into the program for 12 months while on active duty. Upon separation, a veteran who served for three years would be eligible for 36 months (i.e., four academic years) of educational assistance benefits at a qualified education institution, including vocational and other post-secondary professional training courses. The monthly benefit can be used to pay for tuition, books, college fees, room and board, and other living expenses while attending school. In many cases, children of 100% service-connected disabled veterans who have also themselves been declared “totally and permanently disabled” by the VA---and surviving spouses and children of those who die on active duty or from service-connected and combat-related causes-- can also receive these benefits; see http://moaa.org/benefitsinfo/default.asp and www.VA.gov for details.

VA Death and Burial Benefits Other Than Income, Life Insurance, Education and Health Coverage

The VA provides free burials and gravesites to any honorably- or generally-discharged active duty veteran, his or her spouse or widow(er) or minor child at several dozen national cemeteries across the country and at dozens of state veterans’ cemeteries. Burials are done on a space-available basis; gravesites are no longer available at Arlington National Cemetery, except for high officials, highly decorated veterans and certain other notables) and in much of California. However, niches for cremated remains are available everywhere.  Free VA markers and (if permitted in that particular cemetery) full-size headstones for veterans are provided, and these can include not only the name and life dates, but also certain military decorations. The VA pays to transport the remains to a gravesite only if the veteran died in a VA hospital.    

The VA pays about $128 toward non-government headstones and up to about $300 for plots in private cemeteries, but only for service-connected disability compensation recipients, “wartime” veterans or any other veteran otherwise entitled to a burial allowance. It pays about $300 for burial plots to survivors of disability payment recipients or survivors of any veteran dying in a VA hospital---and $2,000 for burial of 100% disabled service-connected veterans.

The VA also drapes a deceased veteran’s casket with an American flag (which is then ceremonially folded and presented to the next of kin) and arranges for a military honor guard, a gun salute and the blowing of Taps by a bugler at graveside. In the early 1990s, the manpower-short military services tried to reduce the size of honor guard contingents, substitute  honor guards from Reservist or ROTC squads for military units and even use tape-cassette recordings of Taps rather than live buglers. An outcry from veterans groups and Congress stamped out most of these “economies”. But such cutbacks can and will return if military commitments reduce available manpower--as was shown when the Army had to send even its elite Arlington Cemetery ceremonial burial unit (widely seen in newsreels from President Kennedy’s 1963 funeral and quite striking for its horses, flags, caissons, funeral march music, buglers, dress uniforms and gun salutes) as reinforcements to Iraq in late 2003.

Finally, the VA arranges for a letter signed by the President thanking the deceased veteran’s next of kin, or a friend, for his or her service to the nation. For benefits for those dying on active duty, also see http://www.moaa.org/benefitdsinfo/default.asp , www.VA.gov and “Armed Forces Tax Benefits” at www.irs.gov.

Additional State Benefits For Veterans, Dependents & Survivors

Surprisingly, almost all states not only offer free advocacy help for federal VA benefits to their residents; all of them also provide their own, separate state veterans’ and veterans’ survivor benefits as well ! These vary enormously from state to state---often depending upon whether a veteran is service-connected disabled, the percentage of the disability, wartime or combat service, or whether a veteran suffers from, or dies of,  war-, combat-, or service-connected causes, or was decorated.

They can include: free or reduced fee fishing, hunting, camping, boating, drivers’ or professional licenses; free or reduced fee state park, fair or museum admission; free, reduced fee and/or specially-marked auto license plates; free cemetery interment or burial allowances; exemption from, or reductions in, state income taxes or even local real estate or personal property taxes; free or reduced tuition in state colleges and vocational training courses; other loans, grants or scholarships for veterans, children and spouses of disabled or deceased veterans; rights to reside for free or at low rates in state veterans’ homes; home mortgage, or home or car disability adaptation assistance; extra state payments to disabled, blind, combat, wartime or decorated veterans; waivers of some or all real estate transfer or courthouse fees; and a host of other miscellaneous benefits.

To find out which states offer which of this wide range of benefits (and, of course, most states offer far less than the full potential range of them) contact staff at state veterans’ agencies, which are listed with their telephone numbers and (where available) websites at www.NASDVA.org or www.NACVSO.org.

Other Benefits for Veterans, War Zone Service Military and Activated Guardsmen and Reservists

The commercial website www.veteransadvantage.com , for an annual membership fee of $19.95, offers a wide range of retail discounts---including 15% or more off Amtrak fares. Call 1-866-838-7392 for Amtrak details. The Disabled American Veterans (www.DAV.org ), the Paralyzed Veterans of America (www.PVA.org ), the American Legion (www.legion.org ), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (www.VFW.org ) and the Vietnam Veterans of America (www.vva.org ) offer a wide range of benefits and various discounts to their members, dependents and survivors.

Activated Reservists and Guardsmen have return-to-work, fringe benefit, seniority and durational retirement accrual rights with their civilian employers; see http://www.abanet.org/legalservices/reservists/home.html about legal rights---and many employers, including the US Postal Service, at least 29 state governments, numerous local government bodies and more than 500 private firms, supplement military pay up to civilian pay levels (if higher) and even extend employer health coverage (see www.esgr.org and its “Oustanding Employers” listing). H.R. 1345, introduced in April, 2004, by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) and 83 bipartisan co-sponsors would mandate that all civilian federal employees who are activated get pay differential supplements.

Operation Hero Miles (www.heromiles.org ) transfers donated airline frequent flyer miles to combat-area, overseas military personnel to fly them from U.S. military reception airports (there are only 3) to their homes for family emergencies and any R & R leave they otherwise might  have to pay for themselves; its donated miles are also available for needy family members’ travel to visit hospitalized service persons; check the website for other, related uses being developed. Non-profit Fisher Houses (www.Fisherhouse.org ) offer free lodging to relatives visiting wounded and ill service persons at many military and VA hospitals across the nation. Regular military, National Guard and Reserve persons sent to war zones or called for active duty can get free (except for veterinary care) foster care for their pet dogs, cats and birds through www.NetPets.org . The USO (www.USO.org ; yes, the same organization that sponsored all those Bob Hope shows for the troops over the years and was fictionalized in the Bette Midler film For the Boys) promotes free telephone calling cards for overseas troops; another group, Cell Phones For Soldiers (www.cellphonesforsoldiers.com ), does so too-- and also distributes cell phones themselves—for those serving in Iraq. 

Thomas McCormack is a Vietnam Era veteran who has handled SSI and Medicaid eligibility with the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and done public benefits advocacy for several disability organizations. He wrote The AIDS Benefits Handbook (Yale University Press). Email him at tomxix@ix.netcom.com

Sidebar: VA and Related Information Numbers

VA Benefits…………………………800-827-1000

VA Life Insurance………………….800-669-8477

VA Educational Benefits & Loans…800-326-8276

CHAMPVA…………………………..800-733-8387

Tricare………………………………..800-538-9552 www.osd.Tricare.mil  

Headstones & markers……………..800-697-6947

Persian Gulf Helpline……………...800-PGW-VETS

Summaries of State Benefits for  Veterans….  www.NASDVA.org

Support services for military families…..http://www.mfrc-dodqol.org

Military service personnel locators……..http://www. mfrc-dodqol.org/wordfiles/Military_Personnel_Locator_Information.doc 

VA’s Unique and Different Income-Counting Principles and Methodology

In counting income for VA medical care and pension eligibility, the VA---at least in theory---counts the last year’s income (either the last full calendar year or the last full year before the date of application, depending on factors that are far from clear). This includes using 5% of the last year’s basic family-sized pension level as the threshold amount in determining what remaining expenses are allowable in the current year’s UME income deduction. But conversely, the VA uses the current year’s  child earnings disregard in counting income for this year’s medical care or pension eligibility.

VA pension and medical care income eligibility levels---and pension payment levels---are expressed and calculated on the last year’s annual income , rather than the current, monthly basis that’s generally (with some exceptions) used by other needs-based programs like welfare, SSI, Medicaid and food stamps, and which are thus more familiar to benefit advocates and ordinary citizen applicants. Notwithstanding this, in practice VA enrollment and eligibility clerks quite often routinely accept and count documentation of current earnings or Social Security benefits when poor and working class veterans apply (the poor and many others do well just to gather and submit written proof even of current income; proof of last year’s finances is often beyond them).  

Moreover, the VA has its own separate eligibility terminology---not just in unique, but easily-understandable, terms such as “service-connected”, concepts such as being disabled by only a partial percentage of full capacity or referring to asset eligibility levels as allowed “net worth”---but also in the non-use of such workable, familiar terms as  “income disregards”, “countable income” or “income eligibility level” that make dealing with SSI, Medicaid and welfare eligibility understandable.   

Sidebar: 2006 Amounts: Wartime Needy Disabled Veterans’ & Survivors’ Pension

(The VA rounds benefit payments down to the next lower dollar in making payments.]

Single Veteran:                                                   $881.58 monthly

Veteran + 1 dependent:                  273  more monthly

Each additional dependent:                           150.50 more monthly

Aid and Attendance:                                         589.83 more monthly

Housebound:                                                      195.83 more monthly

Surviving spouse:                                $591.16 monthly

Spouse + 1 dependent:                                            182.75 more monthly

Each additional dependent:                           150.50 more monthly

Aid and Attendance:                                         353.83 more monthly

Housebound:                                                      131.33 more monthl 

“Net worth” ( assets) cannot exceed a lived-in home of any value, and $80,000 in other property, savings and investments.

 In 2006, the first $8,450 in a child’s yearly earnings are not counted.

Sidebar:

Calculating New Regional Priority Group 8 Minimum Income Levels

First, to see whether a particular locality is in, or not in, a Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA) within a state, see http://huduser.org/datasets/il/fmr03  and consult the document entitled  “Income Limit Area Definitions”.  Second, to calculate that locality's SMSA or non-SMSA family-sized limits within a given state, consult relevant parts of the other documents at that same site. Note the SMSA or non-SMSA family median for the state, as applicable to your  locality.  Third, multiply that median figure by .80, which gives median of the housing programs’ maximum “low income” limit for an “average”  family. Fourth, to then finally get the relevant different, varying levels for each family size, multiply that sum by .70 for one person; .80 for two; .90 for 3; 1.00 for 4; 1.08 for 5; 1.16 for 6; 1.24 for 7; and 1.32