Problems with a Veterans Affairs benefit have created a scam industry and left thousands of seniors ignorant of a pension they are entitled to receive, veterans advocates and congressional investigators say. Many families are unaware of the pension for ailing combat veterans and their dependents, footing the bill for their care as up to $24,239 a year for each veteran sits unused. Advocates blame poor outreach by the Veterans Affairs Department, a massive federal agency that wields $127 billion each year.
Families that do know about the Aid and Attendance pension, sometimes called the widows’ pension, find themselves confronted with daunting paperwork. The applications, once submitted to one of three centralized processing offices, can take more than a year to approve. Lisa Fitter spent 14 months seeking a pension for her mother-in-law, the widow of a World War II veteran, who suffered a massive stroke in May. The Fitters have struggled to provide 24-hour home care, and they pay an aide $15 to shower her each day.
“There is no excuse when you’re dealing with a 96-year-old woman,” said Fitter, 47, a Wellington Realtor. “She could have died.”
A spokesman for the VA told The New York Times in September that 38,076 veterans and 38,685 spouses were granted an Aid and Attendance pension in 2011. That year 1.7 million World War II veterans were alive and eligible for the pension.
Since December, hundreds of thousands have died, but more Korean War veterans, who number more than 2 million, will become eligible. The issue has particular resonance in Florida, where 187,900 World War II veterans reside, according to Veterans Affairs. The Census reports that about 32,846 Korean and World War II veterans live in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
The benefit is a kind of last thank you for low-income veterans — or their spouses or dependent children — who are older than 65 and rely on others for daily care. They must have been a member of the Armed Forces at least one day during wartime and need not have been injured in combat. On average, veterans received $9,669 in 2011, and their survivors received $6,209, according to a federal report published this year.
Critics have blasted the program from all sides. They say Veterans Affairs does little to advertise the pension in a deliberate attempt to keep the cost down and to relieve backlog.
Meanwhile, state and local veterans officials said they give presentations, set up tables and distribute information through organizations such as the American Legion. The Florida Department of Veterans Affairs distributes a benefits guide — but Aid and Attendance is conspicuously absent from it.
The dearth of education has led to other problems, as well. A parasitic industry of private “pension poachers,” as they’re known, has sprung up in the vacuum of official help.
“There’s no outreach to seniors, and because of that failure, [Veterans Affairs has] allowed a market to be created in partnership with financial advisors and assisted living properties,” said Deborah Burak, a Virginia lobbyist who has railed for pension reform after fighting with Veterans Affairs over benefits for her father.
“They put on huge seminars, and they always do it under the guise of honoring their sacrifice,” she said.
In a May report, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, counted more than 200 organizations nationally that sell financial products to seniors, ostensibly to help them dump wealth to meet asset restrictions on the pensions. Sometimes they offered annuities that the seniors could never hope to recover in their lifetimes, investigators reported.
U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Tequesta, has introduced legislation that would make it illegal to transfer assets three years before applying for a pension.
While some say this will further complicate an onerous application process, a spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who introduced the companion bill, said clearing pension poachers from the system will free up time to process legitimate claims.
Piero Pareja, the veterans services officer for Palm Beach County, sees the backlog, though he said some applications are approved in a matter of weeks. He isn’t surprised that millions of bedridden seniors are unaware of the pension, but he encouraged veterans to call his tiny office (three people, including himself), rather than private companies. The Veterans’ Services Office is free and won’t hard sell financial products.
“We can help you,” he said. “We can do 100 percent of the paperwork.”
Pareja’s office did the paperwork for the Fitters, in Wellington. First Fitter and her husband tried to submit the application forms, along with backup documents, themselves. But Veterans Affairs denied their application, requesting more information. So they went to the Veterans’ Service Office.
That was in October. Then just last week, Pearl Fitter was admitted to a local hospital with an infection, as word came from Veterans Affairs. Their claim was approved.