The Ongoing Scandal Called the Veterans Administration
My mother died last Thursday at the age of 89. Her death, fortunately coming peacefully following a stroke during her sleep, followed a long mental decline caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
I’m sure the Veterans Administration is relieved. They won’t have to pay her the thousands of dollars in retroactive pension money they would have owed had she lived until they finally processed her application (or the tens of thousands more they’d have spent if she’d continued to live).
Mom was a US Navy veteran of World War II. Something of a pioneer for women in the military, she volunteered to become a Navy WAVE (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service) as a young woman in her early 20’s during the war, and was posted at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where she took on the duties of some male sailor who was thus freed up to go to sea. Because she had earned an honorable discharge, she was entitled, in her old age, to a pension, currently worth about $22,000 per year, based upon her financial need.
The way these pensions work is, if a retired veteran’s income, after deducting all medical costs, including the costs of home care for those who cannot live on their own because of some disability, falls below the pension amount of $22,000, the VA is supposed to provide pension funds that will “top up” the person’s income to that level. In my mother’s case, because she was unable to take care of herself, and had to have a round-the-clock home-care companion in her house, her cost of care — about $70,000 a year — was entirely eating up both the $36,000 pension my father left her and her $14,000 Social Security widow’s benefit, leaving her with a deficit of $20,000 a year plus the cost of her food and other things, all of which I and my two siblings had to cover.
In early January, I filed her application for a veteran’s pension. We had earlier registered her with the VA, so they had already, two years earlier, processed and confirmed her discharge papers and issued her a veteran’s ID number. Last June, we also applied for her veteran’s medical benefits and she had been approved for VA healthcare last October. All we needed to do in January then, since her service and discharge status had already been confirmed was document her income, which we did with a statement from both the Social Security Administration and the Connecticut State Comptroller’s pension office (my dad, a US Marine veteran who had died in March, 2012, had been a professor at the University of Connecticut), and document her home-care and other medical expenses, which required only a statement from the licensed home-care agency we were using.
All of that should be so routine and simple that a pension could have been approved with the stroke of a few computer keys, but we were advised by a veterans affairs advocate working for the town of Windham, Connecticut that such applications were taking nine months to a year for the agency to process!
Worse yet, he said that while the benefits would be paid retroactive back to the date of the application, they would only be paid if the recipient were alive at the time that the application was approved. If the veteran were to die before approval, the money would be lost.
Think about that a minute. My mom volunteered to stand up and help defend her country in one of the biggest wars of its history, and her government left her dangling in her old age — in her case for four months. Many vets wait a year or longer, and then often get denied because of agency errors. They then have to appeal, often with the help of a lawyer whom they have to pay, if they can. I know one couple, a legally blind WWII veteran and his wife who are scraping by on pennies after their cost of health care and houseing, who were told a year after they had applied that the VA had “lost” their application and had no record that they had filed for a pension. Now it’s been almost another year and a half since they refiled their application and they still have not received a pension determination. The good thing: this veteran says his battle with the agency is keeping him alive. “I am not going to die until I get those bastards to approve my pension so my wife will get the money!” he vows.
In our case it was not a disaster. My brother, sister and I have enough money to have been able to cover my mom’s income shortfall, and the fact that we won’t get reimbursed by the VA won’t kill us. But I know there are many elderly and younger disabled veterans of WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and so many of America’s endless string of wars, incursions and invasions, who do now have any money, or any relatives with sufficient assets to assist them.
A young man, a Marine veteran of the Iraq War who is currently working as a staffmember in the veteran’s affairs advocacy office of my own Montgomery County, PA, who also helped me with completing my mother’s pension application, told me that he thought the US government was “deliberately stalling” on processing and approving pension applications because “if they processed all these things promptly, and paid every veteran what they were owed for pensions and disability benefits, it would make wars too expensive to fight!”
And by the way, it’s not just veterans. Spouses of disabled and retired veterans, if they are low-income, can be entitled to what is called “aid-and-attendance” benefits from the VA if they are home-bound and need to hire in-home care. This benefit program can provide up to about $1000 a month in assistance. Again the VA is inexcusably taking upwards of a year to process these claims — and is frequently wrongly denying them, requiring people to appeal (if they can afford to).
There is also a particularly nasty aspect to how the government is “handling” this latter program.
A couple of years ago, the agency finally acknowledged that the defoliant Agent Orange, used extensively by the US in a criminal effort to destroy ground cover and jungles in Indochina during the Vietnam War, was responsible for a laundry list of some 43 common deadly and debilitating ailments found among returning veterans of that war, including things like ischemic heart disease, parkinson’s disease, Type II diabetes and prostate cancer. Under the VA’s rules, it was determined that if any veteran who had spent even one day in Vietnam were to contract any of those ailments, it would be “presumed” to have resulted from exposure to Agent Orange, meaning that the resulting disability would be considered a wartime service-connected disability, and the disability payment would be made regardless of income. The veteran would no longer have to battle to prove that the problem was the result of Agent Orange.
So far so good, but here’s the rub: If a veteran dies of such a service-connected disability, as many have, her or his spouse is entitled to aid-and-attendance benefits if needed. This particular aspect of veterans benefits is not publicized, but surely could help many tens of thousands of needy widows. Now, however, I’ve learned that the VA is trying to eliminate the retroactivity of that program, so that if a Vietnam War veteran died years ago from one of those “presumptive” Agency Orange-caused ailments, without having known it was caused by Agent Orange and before the “presumptive” decision was made, and thus without having received a disability rating and benefit determination, that person’s spouse would not be able to apply for any benefits.
This is a truly disgusting idea, probably dreamed up by the same people who came up with the idea of using a “chained” CPI to screw Social Security retirees out of inflation adjustments to their Social Security benefits.
My mom, who despite being an ardent pacifist in her later years, was always tremendously proud of her pioneering service in the Navy in WWII, regularly marching in Veterans Day parades in our local community where she was often the only older woman in the formation of veterans, has been shafted by her country. But she’s not alone. Older veterans and disabled veterans and their widowed spouses across the country are being shafted by the Veterans Affairs Agency, the Pentagon and especially by the political charlatans in Washington — including President Obama and members of Congress, Democratic and Republican — who are quick to claim that they “support the troops,” and quick to vote for benefits for veterans, but who then quietly allow the VA, through lack of public outreach and through deliberate foot-dragging, to make those benefits unavailable. According to the VA’s own statistics, there are some 800,000 disability claims currently pending, many filed by aging WWII and Korean War era vets, with an average wait time of over 10 months. Regular pension claims like my mother’s are now taking an average of 9 months to approve. When desperately ill, or aged, vets face waits like that, you know someone is counting on them to die before they get approved.
We need to demand that a well-funded, full-scale publicity blitz be launched on radio and TV, to publicize all available veterans benefits, we need adequate staffing and training of VA personnel to quickly eliminate the backlog in approval of benefits, we need guaranteed retroactivity for all veterans benefits, including to the estates of those veterans and veterans’ spouses who die while waiting for approval (to eliminate the current incentive for agency delays in approvals), and finally we need to oust all the politicians who talk so unctuously about supporting the troops while undermining that support in practice.
Let’s make sure that the government and the taxpayers pay the full cost of America’s wars, and not leave those who had to go fight them in the lurch just to keep those costs down and hidden from view.
The government won in its insidious effort to stiff my mom of her veterans benefits through administrative delay. It should not be able to stiff any more veterans.
Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. Lindorff’s article on drones in Philadelphia appears in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He lives in Philadelphia.