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Veterans, Survivors Miss out on Pensions
Charlotte Observer  |  December 23, 2005

How to Get Help

Nearly 2 million poor veterans or their impoverished widows are likely missing out on as much as $22 billion a year in pensions from the U.S. government, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has had only limited success in finding them.

Widows are hardest hit. According to a VA estimate, only one in seven of the survivors of the nation's deceased Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines who likely could qualify for the pension actually get the monthly checks. What's more, participation in the program is falling, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of VA records. The reason for the lax participation, a VA study said, is that poor veterans generally "are completely unaware that the program exists."

"Veterans simply don't know about it," said Despina Hatton, who runs a senior law program for residents of Washoe County, Nev., that seeks to help veterans or their widows receive the benefit. They're people such as Rose Davidson, a 72-year-old widow of a World War II sailor who lives in Sparks, Nev., on $9,732 a year in Social Security benefits. Frail, legally blind, suffering from dementia and in need of regular assistance at home, she could be eligible for $1,608 more a year under the VA's formulas. That would boost her income by about 17 percent. But her daughter said that neither she nor her mother had ever heard of the VA pension until recently. She's working to apply. The VA knows that many veterans and widows are missing out on the benefit.

"We obviously are here for any veteran or survivor who qualifies," said Tom Pamperin, a VA pension official. "But so many of these people -- we don't know who they are, where they are." Indeed, a VA report from late 2004 recommended that the agency "improve its outreach efforts" with public service announcements and other pilot programs.

While it made limited efforts to reach veterans or their widows through existing channels, it is "difficult to determine" whether such efforts have been successful, Pamperin said. The numbers don't suggest they have been. In fiscal 2005, there were fewer veterans and widows added to the pension rolls than there were in 2004, according to the Knight Ridder analysis of VA data.

World War II and Korean War veterans are dying and rapidly falling off the rolls. At the same time, the department said it's been "reasonably successful" in signing up new Vietnam vets. Nonetheless, one VA estimate of the program shows the potential pool of poor veterans and widows without the pensions has remained unchanged the past four years. The total number of pension cases fell to 541,000 in fiscal 2005, the sixth straight year of declines.

The VA actuary's office predicts that pension participation is likely to drop further, losing between 7,000 and 8,000 enrollees a year and falling below 500,000 participants by 2012, according to a VA actuary report obtained by Knight Ridder. At the same time, the separate 2004 report estimated that an additional 853,000 veterans and 1.1 million survivors -- generally widows -- could get the pension but don't. Of all those likely eligible, only 27 percent of veterans and 14 percent of widows receive the money.

The VA's pension program is targeted at veterans who served their country during wartime but have fallen into poverty. It's also there for the widows of veterans who have fallen on hard times. The program provides a monthly check to bring incomes up to a certain level. A veteran can make up to $10,579 a year and qualify for the VA pension, while veterans' widows can make up to $7,094 a year. Those who are homebound or in need of extra assistance can receive more.

In Reno, the reason why so many veterans are missing out on the program seems obvious to Hatton, who runs the senior law program.

VA literature lists the program among the dozens it provides. But the program's name confuses many veterans: It's called a "disability pension," but a person doesn't have to be disabled to receive it. Further, a "Summary of VA Benefits" on the department's Web site doesn't spell out a central criterion of the program: that veterans can qualify based on their age. (The age requirement is listed in other parts of the VA Web site, and the VA said it will correct the error.)

Basically, a poor veteran who's 65 or older and served during a war, in combat or not, is eligible for the program. Hatton's team, however, discovered that a majority of the poor elderly veterans in Reno had never heard of the program. Working with researchers from the Sanford Center for Aging at the University of Nevada, Reno, Hatton set out to measure how many veterans were missing out and to help them sign up. Using a county meal-service list, researchers fanned out across the city, asking senior citizens about their involvement with the VA.

One elderly World War II vet, Merril Robinson, invited the researchers into his small apartment, where he was getting around in a motorized wheelchair as he made breakfast. Researcher Teresa Sacks asked Robinson if he wanted to read the consent form.

"You can probably read it to me, because I can't see," he said. Then, after explaining that she came with no guarantees of additional benefits, Sacks led Robinson though the interview, asking when he joined the military and his familiarity with VA benefits. He was "somewhat" familiar with VA benefits and did rely on the VA health system.

But Robinson, who lived in subsidized housing and had a nurse come to help with some of his activities, wasn't familiar with the pension program.

As she walked out of the house, Sacks said, "He's almost a slam-dunk" -- meaning that he certainly should qualify for some benefits. (Robinson is now eligible for a pension benefit of $58 a month, or $696 a year.)

The project proceeded, door to door. So far, the researchers have helped 11 veterans or widows get their benefits, in amounts ranging from $144 a year to $5,748 a year.

For Gordon Croft, being awarded the largest benefit means his income will jump from $6,816 a year to $12,564. Croft, a veteran of the Korean War who suffers from arthritis, emphysema, osteoporosis and other conditions, had no idea that he could qualify. And while he does get medical care through the VA, the pension side of the VA didn't know about him. "That's something I always find kind of peculiar," said Heather Traverso, one of the researchers. "Why don't the two sides of the agency communicate?"

How to Get Help

Veterans and their widows or other dependents might be eligible for the Department of Veterans Affairs pension if they meet certain requirements.

** Veterans must have served during a time of war, even if not in combat, and they must be either permanently disabled or 65 or older.

** Their incomes must fall under a certain level.

** Widows of veterans can also apply, although their incomes must be even lower.

If you think you may qualify for the benefit, go to: http://www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/pension/vetpen.htm

If you are a widow of a veteran, go here: http://www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/pension/spousepen.htm

The VA also has a toll-free number for more information: (800) 827-1000. 

 

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