By Lisa Renner
Charlie Broome, an 82-year-old Grass Valley resident, is grateful for her neighbor who regularly makes her breakfast, picks up her mail and gets her groceries.
The neighbor, whom she pays with money from a federal program for U.S. military veterans and their families, allows her to remain in her home rather than live with one of her three children.
“They’re wonderful but I don’t want to be a burden on my kids,” said Broome, who has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.
Broome qualifies for the federal funding, called Aid and Assistance, because she is a widow of a veteran who served during wartime.
Aid and Assistance is a supplemental benefit for low-income veterans and their survivors who qualify for a veterans’ pension.
Veterans service officers across the state say the program is underused and that they must work hard to get the word out.
Only 116,000 veterans and 126,500 survivors get Aid and Attendance nationwide, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Kevin Friel, assistant director of pension and fiduciary service at the department, said he was not able to provide the number of California veterans who receive the benefit.
However, with 21 million veterans in the country, it seems likely that the benefit is underused, Friel said. “We think there’s a population out there that is not using benefits they are entitled to,” he said. His office cited a 2015 Forbes magazine article that estimated the number of eligible veterans using the benefit could be as low as 5 percent.
About 7 percent of veterans nationwide—about 1.5 million people—were below the poverty level between 2010 and 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates cited in a Veterans Affairs Department 2015 report. Non-veterans, by contrast, had a higher poverty rate during that time, with more than 14 percent below the poverty level.
Help With Daily Activities
Aid and Attendance is for people who require the aid of another person to perform everyday tasks, such as bathing, feeding and dressing. The money can be used to help a veteran or survivor remain at home or help defray nursing home expenses. The benefit can also be used to pay a son, daughter, friend or other caregiver—but not a spouse—to do the caregiving.
The first step in getting Aid and Attendance is to get a veteran’s pension. The pension is open to anyone 65 and older who served at least 90 days of active duty in the U.S. military with at least one day during wartime.
The veteran must also be low-income and meet net-worth requirements, or be permanently and totally disabled.
The net-income limit to receive a pension is $12,907 a year for a veteran without dependents and $8,656 annually for a surviving spouse. Some expenses, such as out-of-pocket medical costs after insurance payments, may be deducted from the countable income.
There is no set limit on net worth but it cannot be excessive. According to the federal Department of Veteran Affairs website: “The VA will determine whether your assets are of a sufficiently large amount that you could live off them for a reasonable period of time.”
The pension gives veterans up to the allowed net-income limit. For instance, if a veteran without dependents earned $11,907 annually, the veteran would receive a pension of $1,000 per year.
If that veteran also qualified for Aid and Attendance, then he or she could receive an additional $8,624 per year.
‘Overwhelming for some’
Irv Eastman, a 95-year-old Auburn resident and World War II Navy veteran, said he was disappointed that he earned too much to qualify for Aid and Attendance. He said his income was low but was just a little higher than the limit. It was particularly upsetting because the application was so arduous.
He has managed to stay living in a mobile home with the help of a friend who cooks his meals and does housework. He says he pays her out of his own pocket.
The lengthy application process is one reason veterans sometimes don’t even apply for the benefit, said Kevin Edwards, the Nevada County veterans service officer.
“It can be overwhelming for some,” he said. “They’re already in a time of need. They don’t know where their paperwork is.”
Veterans have to fill out a four-page form that requires them to go over their life history, including dates of marriages and jobs. Some veterans struggle to recall that information.
It can also take a long time to get approved. According to Veteran Aid, a nonprofit that helps veterans work their way through the process, the wait between submitting an application and receiving an approval or denial can be six to eight months or longer.
In contrast, California’s In-Home Supportive Services program, offered to all seniors over 65, not just veterans, is much easier to apply and qualify for, said Jamee Horning, executive director of Seniors First, a nonprofit in Auburn that helps seniors get services. That program also pays for services for everyday tasks like house cleaning and meal preparation, and the approval process only takes about 40 days or less. The program, which is also open to those who are blind or disabled, is intended to help people remain at home who might otherwise need to move to assisted living.
To qualify for the program, seniors must be enrolled in the state’s low-income health program, Medi-Cal, and complete a health-care form. Then, a county social worker interviews them at home to determine eligibility and need for In-Home Supportive Services. The hourly rates given to caregivers vary by county.
Why Veterans Go Without
Some veterans don’t apply for benefits like Aid and Attendance because they don’t know about them. Friel, with the federal Department of Veteran Affairs, said by the time veterans need the benefit, they have often been out of the military for 40 or 50 years. They haven’t thought about military benefits for some time.
His department publicizes the benefit through media interviews and presentations to veterans services officers around the country.
Renee Ramirez, the Orange County veterans service officer, said in an email that her office publicizes the benefit by giving presentations to senior centers and hospitals. Retirement and nursing homes also share information, as do local area agencies on aging and Aging and Disability Resource Centers, which offer information on long-term support services for seniors and those with disabilities.
Some veterans can’t use Aid and Attendance to stay at home because their illnesses are too complex and they need more skilled care than a family member or friend can provide, Ramirez added. Those skilled caregivers may cost more than the benefit would provide. Aid and Attendance can also be used to defray nursing home expenses.
Finally, some aging veterans choose not to apply for benefits like Aid and Attendance because they think they don’t deserve them, said John Melrose, Placer County veterans service officer. “Some people see it as taking money from someone with a missing limb,” he said. “They think someone’s worse off than them.”
However, the program is an entitlement, meaning that anyone who meets the criteria is entitled to the benefit. A veteran choosing to not take the benefit will not give any more money to anyone else, Melrose said.
It is difficult to find and interview veterans who don’t apply for the benefit because they often do not want to go public with their choices. Horning, the executive director of Seniors First, said older veterans tend to not want to ask for help in general.
“That’s kind of a generational thing,” she said. “They are reluctant to ask for help until it’s a dire emergency.”