Friday, March 15, 2013

Waiting for Veteran's Benefits: 11 Things Every Applicant Should Know and Do

The Veterans Administration offers many different types of assistance to help aging and disabled veterans receive the care they require.  Included are programs and benefits such as Aid and Attendance, Disability Compensation, Survivor's Benefits, Housebound and the Improved Pension.  The problem with VA benefits is not the lack of assistance but in the bureaucratic backlog of claims processing.  As anyone who has filed a claim for assistance with the VA knows, the wait time is excruciating. 

By the Department of Veterans Affairs own admission, the average time to process a claim is 241 days.  For those whose require assistance, that is over 8 months worth of home care, assisted living or nursing home bills piling up.  For many veterans the experience is much worse.  Complicated claims, errors made by the VA or by the applicants and the appeals process can add months or even years to the wait.  It is not unheard of or even unusual for applicants to wait two years to begin receiving their full benefits. 

While it is interesting to know what is causing the problem (23 million aging veterans among other things) and what the administration is doing to fix it (quite a bit, actually), it is of little comfort to the veteran waiting for assistance.  The VAs proposed fixes are years away and even with those improvements wait times will still be 6 months.  This is not a problem that is going away any time soon.  So what should veterans know and do to speed up their claims?  How can we make the best of this bad situation?

1) Do it right the first time.  We cannot over-emphasize the importance of properly filling out an application.  Take the time to answer every question thoroughly and accurately. Don't skip questions or leave blanks because you don't understand the question or think it does not apply to you.  Get help when you need it.  The rejection and appeal cycle is not something that is going to benefit anyone.

2) Do your research.  Know the exact benefit type and amount for which you are applying.  Know the eligibility requirements and know why you qualify. Don't ask for benefits for which you think you might be eligible.  Know that you are eligible for certain before applying and have the evidence to prove it.

3) Recognize that the VA prioritizes, officially.  For example, a terminally ill veteran's first-time claim will be prioritized in front of an appeal for a higher benefit rate.  Present your case with the urgency it requires.

4) Recognize that the VA prioritizes, un-officially.  VA claims processors are human.  When presented with an overwhelming number of claims, they are going to choose the less complicated cases first; they are going to choose the thinner file folders.  Don't take the "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to providing evidence to back your claim.  Provide the exact evidence which is needed and nothing more. 

5) Keep copies of everything.  Lost paperwork, unsurprisingly, causes long delays.  Keep paper and digital copies of everything and be ready to fax or email anything which is requested immediately.  Don't waste time blaming the VA for losing paperwork, simply provide them with another copy. 

6) Don't put all your eggs in one basket.  For many veterans, Medicaid is a much faster alternative to receiving assistance.  Applications are usually processed within 45 - 60 days.  Learn more about Medicaid vs. Veterans Pensions or get help determining your Medicaid eligibility.

7) Don't put all your eggs in two baskets.  Many elderly veterans are or could be eligible for other, non-Medicaid  non-military, federal, state and non-profit assistance programs.  Use the Eldercare Resource Locator Tool to find public and private assistance options which are available to you.

8) Know How Long You'll Wait  Death, taxes and a long wait for VA benefits are sure things.  Expect to wait 9 -18 months to begin receiving assistance and plan for it.  The VA does a good job of publishing information on the backlog.  You can view the average wait time for each regional VA claims processing office here

9) Know that financial help is available.  One relatively new and very good option for aging veterans are eldercare loans.  These are loans designed specifically to assist veterans pay for the cost of home care or assisted living while they are waiting for their VA application to be approved.  The lender will even help with the application paperwork.  Learn more about eldercare loans for veterans.

10) Who do you know?  Though officially denied, all evidence points to the fact that knowing someone within the administration can speed up the veterans claims approval process.  Working with a veterans benefits consultant will undoubtedly reduce the time needed to gain approval.  If not because of who they know within the Department of Veterans Affairs, then because they help their clients to present an application that is complete, thorough and without errors, inaccuracies or missing data.  Read more about or find a veterans benefits advisor.

11) Find affordable care.  Veterans who pay for care out of pocket while waiting for a claim approval and reimbursement check should be aware of the vast difference in the cost of home care and assisted living.  Even within the same geographic area, the cost for the same care can vary by 50%, even 100%.  Veterans and their families should use one of the free services to help them find the most affordable care in their area.