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Giving Back to Vets

Millions of deserving veterans are missing out on generous VA benefits. Are you one of them? Here are eight programs that could help you secure your future

Giving Back to Vets

— Mark Lund Homeroom; Prop Stylist: Lisa Edsalv

Assisted living
Vets and their spouses who reside in an assisted living facility may qualify for an aid and attendance pension/allowance to help pay for the costs of additional care. This benefit is based on the level of disability. The income thresholds for eligibility are $19,736 for a single vet in assisted living or $23,396 for a couple, after all allowable deductions.

Prescription drugs
Here's how good the VA drug plan is: all drugs are provided free or for an $8 copay, depending on income. "So veterans may not need any Part D plan at all," says Tom Pamperin, acting associate deputy undersecretary for benefits and programs at the VA. Additionally, pension recipients are exempt from copays for VA health services, including drugs.

Nursing home care
The VA owns and runs 132 nursing home facilities, and contracts with another 2,500 private homes in locations where it doesn't own one. Congress has mandated that the VA find a place for those veterans with disability ratings of 70 percent or higher. Vets with lower disability ratings are eligible as well, but they could be placed on a waiting list because of limited availability in many areas. Most states also operate veterans' nursing homes, some with more lenient admission requirements.

VA-guaranteed mortgages
Many veterans—and many mortgage lenders—wrongly think you can take out only one VA mortgage in a lifetime. The fact is, you can get multiple mortgages, but usually just one at a time, and you must have paid off the old one. These VA mortgages provide 100 percent financing—no need for a down payment. Older vets seeking to buy a unit in a senior-housing community may find this benefit useful—particularly in these days when home values are depressed and mortgages, especially mortgages with no down payment, are harder to come by. (The cost of the required funding fee—typically 2.15 percent—can be added to the total mortgage amount, so it isn't necessary to pay this fee up front.)

In determining eligibility for all veterans' benefits, the VA is less restrictive than Medicaid regarding personal assets and income. Federal aid (such as food stamps or Supplemental Security Income) is not counted. Also, unlike with Medicaid, the VA's goal is to keep people in their own homes, so homes and cars are not counted as assets. Veterans are generally allowed to have $80,000 in household savings and investments and still qualify for pensions and health care. There is also no "look-back" period for signing over assets to relatives.

One word of advice, though. Navigating the VA bureaucracy can be tricky. Even registering with the VA can be daunting for some (you'll need to have your discharge papers in hand or ask the government to locate them). Fortunately, every state and most municipalities and counties in the nation have an Office of Veterans Affairs, staffed with trained people who can help you register and make your case for benefits. Various veterans' organizations—the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, among them—do this, too; lawyers certified by the VA tackle more complex issues.

Even the VA itself recommends that people take advantage of such outside help. "I would encourage people seeking VA benefits to utilize the free services of veterans' organizations or county veterans' affairs people," says Pamperin. "It's a good idea to have an advocate."

Dave Lindorff is a journalist based in Ambler, Pennsylvania.

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