Federal VA Benefits & Programs

Benefits for America’s military veterans go back to 1636 when the Pilgrims passed a law to support disabled soldiers.

Problems claiming those benefits have existed since then.

There are just approximately 20 million veterans in the United States in 2016 and only 4.5 million of them received benefits. The VA passed out $73 billion in benefits in 2014, but the stories of veterans struggling with financial woes like credit card debt and student loan problems while they wait for approved benefits from the VA are so common that they’ve almost become passe.

Unfortunately, that is not news.

Congress officially established the Veterans Administration in 1930 to help solve problems World War I vets were having with an inefficient, confusing benefits system. The American Legion led attempts to oust Gen. Omar Bradley as VA Administrator after World War II because he proposed limiting access to benefits. Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic, the subject of the movie “Born on the Fourth of July,” interrupted President Richard Nixon’s GOP presidential nomination acceptance speech with complaints about the VA. Another VA Director, Robert Nimmo, resigned after describing exposure to the Vietnam herbicide Agent Orange as nothing more than “teenage acne.”

Finally, in 1989, Congress created the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and elevated it to Cabinet-level status. Still, there are no solutions to the VA’s complex system for granting benefits.

The VA budget for 2017 is $182.3 billion, up from the $166 billion it received in 2016. More than 50% of the 2017 budget ($103.6 billion) is for mandatory funding (i.e. benefits promised to veterans). The VA’s obligation is to provide services for veterans and military benefits for spouses and their families.

Federal Benefits and Eligibility

Eligibility for most VA benefits is based upon amount of time served and receiving an honorable discharge from active military duty. Active duty means full-time service as a member of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, or as a commissioned officer of the Public Health Service, Environmental Science Services Administration or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Certain VA benefits require service during wartime.

The federal benefits provided to these veterans include:
  • Health Care – The VA operates the nation’s largest integrated health care system with more than 1,700 sites, including hospitals, outpatient clinics, counseling centers, nursing homes and other medical facilities that serve 8.76 million veterans.
  • Unemployment Benefits – Those unable to find work immediately after serving in the armed forces may be eligible to sign up for programs to help veterans get jobs.
  • Disability Compensation – Disability compensation is a monetary, tax-free benefit paid to veterans who are disabled by a service-connected injury or illness.
  • VA Pensions – Veterans with low incomes who are either permanently or totally disabled, or 65 or older, may be eligible for monetary support if they have 90 days or more of active military service — at least one day of which was during a period of war.
  • Education and Training – Under the GI Bill, participants are entitled to receive a percentage of the cost of tuition and fees at an institution of higher education, a housing allowance, a stipend for books and supplies, and other education benefits. The Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) program is available for veterans’ dependents and survivors. These individuals can receive similar benefits to help finance their educations. Another program, the Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP), serves members of the Reserve armed forces. Individuals who spend two or more years on active duty are eligible for monthly stipends upward of $1,000 for education.
  • Dependency and Indemnity Compensation – This benefit is payable to a surviving spouse, child or parent of service members who died while on active duty or veterans who died from service-connected disabilities.
  • Special Monthly Compensation – This benefit is a higher rate of compensation because of special circumstances such as the loss of hand or leg or if the veteran needs aid and attention from another person.
  • Aid and Attendance – This benefit is for veterans and survivors who are eligible for a VA pension and are either housebound or require help from another person to perform personal functions such as bathing, feeding, etc. You might also be eligible if you are bedridden, a patient in a nursing home due to mental or physical incapacity, or have restricted eyesight.
  • Home Loan Guaranty – VA home loan guaranties help eligible service members, veterans, reservists and surviving spouses obtain homes, condominiums, residential cooperative housing units and manufactured homes, and help them refinance loans. Assistance is also available for veterans who have defaulted on a loan or mortgage.
  • VA Life Insurance – The VA offers life insurance plans that cover active-duty members of the Armed Forces and veterans.
  • Financial Counseling – Advice regarding military debt relief is available for veterans and their families.
  • Burial and Memorial Benefits – Veterans, service members and their spouses and dependent children are eligible for VA burial and memorial benefits. Those benefits include a headstone for a gravesite. Family members can be reimbursed for any funeral costs if the death was service-related.
  • Death Benefits – The Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) program provides monthly financial help to surviving families of service members and veterans who died as a result of active duty or training. If the service member served during a period of war but did not die while serving, assistance is also available for the family.

State Benefits

In addition, every state and several U.S. territories have a Veterans Affairs Office to assist vets with receiving benefits. In some cases, the states provide added benefits. Collectively, state governments spend approximately $4 billion per year on veterans’ programs.

State benefits may include:
  • Educational grants and scholarships
  • Exemptions or discounts on fees, licenses and taxes
  • Home loan and refinancing programs
  • Employment assistance, job training and vocational rehabilitation
  • Prescription drug coverage
  • Long-term care
  • Small business loans
  • Death benefits
  • Free admission to state parks and/or use of state facilities
  • Mental health services
  • Legal assistance

Since programs and benefits vary, it is important to contact the nearest state Veterans Affairs office for specific information.

Access to Benefits

The easiest way to find out information about your benefits as a veteran is to visit the VA website where you can find summaries, fact sheets, infographics and online publications. The site provides detailed information on what benefits are available, who is eligible and how to sign up for the benefit.

Registering for benefits online is the fastest way to get going, but if you are not computer savvy and prefer doing things in person, you can go to a local or regional VA facility, ask for counselor and have them usher you through the process.

Online, you’ll read about what documents you must have, what forms of proof are needed and where to submit the information. Be sure you have copies of all the necessary documents before submitting your registration for benefits. If you register at local or regional office, there should be counselors available to guide you through what has been a very confusing process for many veterans, especially those trying to avoid costly medical bills by getting treatment from the VA.

Do not be discouraged if your claim is denied. There is always considerable discussion about the error rate the VA has, especially regarding disability claims, so keep a record of all your documents and forms of proof. There is a very good chance you will need them to appeal.

Here are some tips that may help you get your benefits approved:
  • Be on Time for All Appointments and Submission Deadlines – If you need an extension to get more information, call the VA offices and let them know.
  • Read Every Question on the Form Carefully – If you don’t understand something, ask.
  • Answer Every Question – Do this even if the answer is not applicable (NA) or unknown.
  • Make Sure Your Claim Number Is Evident Everywhere – This is how the VA tracks forms. If you don’t have a claim number evident on at least one page, there’s no chance they’ll be able to find anything that can help you.

VA Benefits from Other Federal Agencies

Veterans are eligible for benefits from other federal agencies, ranging from help starting a small business to housing to positive steps toward naturalization.

Here are some of the benefits available and places to look for them:
  • Loans for Farms and Homes – The Department of Agriculture provides loans to buy, improve or operate farms, and also has loans for housing in towns with a population under 20,000. The Housing and Urban Development works with vets on HUD-sponsored housing.
  • Small Business – The Office of Veterans Business Development, located in the Small Business Administration, offers assistance in business planning. That includes providing loans and including the business in a 3% procurement goal. There is even help for small businesses damaged by the loss of an essential employee to active duty.
  • Commissary and Exchange Privileges – The Department of Defense offers this to honorably discharged veterans with service-connected disabilities, plus spouses and dependents of service members who die on active duty, military retirees and recipients of the Medal of Honor.
  • Naturalization Preference – Anyone with honorable active duty service during a period of hostility can apply for naturalization without having to establish a period of residence in the U.S. For more information, contact the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
  • Armed Forces Retirement Homes – Eligible vets can live in the Armed Forces Retirement Home in either Gulfport, Ms., or Washington D.C. Applicants must be capable of living independently at the time of application.
  • Help with Electric Bills – The Department of Health and Human Services offers funding for home energy and heating costs.

Veterans Organizations

Each service branch has its own aid society, or official charity, set up as a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help relieve the financial distress of active duty and retired service members. Veterans can also take advantage of one of the many other independent, nonprofit organizations dedicated to serving their needs. Many of these groups help veterans apply for their federal benefits, offer financial and employment advice, and act as advocates on their behalf.

Private Lenders

Under the auspices of the federal government, numerous private lenders offer various loan programs to qualified veterans. The Interest Rate Reduction Loan (IRRL), also known as the VA Streamline Refinance, helps save money on a refinance loan by lowering its interest rate and waiving many traditional closing costs. The Veterans Benefits Improvement Act, passed by Congress in 2008, allows a veteran to utilize up to 100% of the appraised value of a home for a VA Cash-out Refinance Loan.

Many banks and lending institutions also offer debt consolidation loans for veterans with substantial home equity, allowing them to restructure their high-interest rate obligations into one manageable, monthly payment.

Credit Card Benefits for Veterans

There is a very long list of banks and credit card companies anxious to do business with veterans by offering them excellent perks for using their credit card.

American Express, MasterCard and Visa offer cards which have no annual fee, APR interest rates that start as low as 9.74%, and reward programs that offer incentives like 0% interest introductory offers on balance transfers and 2.25% cash back with no limit on the amount of money you can earn back.

Some cards offer longer grace periods for payment, and if you are deployed overseas, no transaction fees plus flexible payments.

There is one card company, United Services Automobile Association (USAA), that makes a donation to disabled veteran services when you open an account and keep it active.

The rewards are so enticing that it seems foolish to pass them up, but remember that credit cards are the #1 source of financial problems for civilians and veterans. The introductory fees eventually go away and so do some of the perks (like low interest rates) if you can’t pay off your debt at the end of every month.

Credit card companies appreciate the service veterans have given the country, but they are businesses, not charities. They can’t operate for long if they give things away for free. Read everything — especially the fine print — before taking on a military credit card.

Bill Fay

Bill Fay is a journalism veteran with a nearly four-decade career in reporting and writing for daily newspapers, magazines and public officials. His focus at Debt.org is on frugal living, veterans' finances, retirement and tax advice. Bill can be reached at bfay@debt.org.

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