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Benefits poorly understood

Tue., Nov. 20, 2012, midnight

VA tries to increase awareness

WASHINGTON – More than half of America’s veterans say they have little or no understanding of the benefits due them, despite efforts over recent years to match returning soldiers with the help and services they need.

An analysis of Department of Veterans Affairs survey data found that younger veterans – those who served in the post-9/11 war period – are better versed in their benefits. But even among those veterans, 40 percent say they have little or no understanding of their benefits, a figure that climbs to two-thirds for those unfamiliar with life insurance benefits available.

The VA said it’s working hard to boost benefits awareness and has taken steps in recent years to do so.

“We want to accept them into the VA. We want to help them,” said Joseph Curtin, who recently became the VA’s director of outreach.

One major change will come Wednesday when a new law will mandate all departing service members go through a series of detailed benefits sessions. Until now, participation in such sessions varied by service and was often optional.

The VA had been reaching 150,000 service members per year; under the mandatory, beefed-up sessions, that is expected to rise to 307,000.

America’s veterans are eligible for a range of benefits, from access to the VA’s well-regarded medical system to lifetime payments for disabilities suffered during military service to access to education, life insurance and home loan programs.

But VA data show that participation varies widely by geography. In addition, a veteran’s understanding of what’s available varies greatly by period of service.

McClatchy-Tribune analyzed the VA’s 2010 National Survey of Veterans, conducted about every 10 years to determine the state of America’s veterans. Included are several questions about veterans’ health coverage as well as understanding of the VA benefits package. McClatchy-Tribune also reviewed benefits data by state in 2011, the most recent year available.

When asked about the VA benefits, veterans’ responses are all over the map, depending on their age and the benefit in question.

Among all veterans, 59 percent said their understanding of available benefits was “a little” or “not at all,” according to the analysis of the VA’s survey data.

The VA said the 2010 survey data does not capture some of the efforts undertaken in the last couple of years to expand access to its benefits. Among other things, the VA said that two-thirds of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have used some VA benefit or service, and that 45 percent of those veterans have filed disability claims; both are far higher than from previous war periods. Health and disability benefits have also been expanded for certain older veterans, based on updated income or illness standards.

Some of the most significant changes will come this week, when the VA and the Pentagon start the revamped briefings for service members transitioning to civilian life.

The efforts will go a long way toward eliminating the problem of veterans who don’t understand their benefits, said Danny Pummill, who oversees the VA’s transition assistance program.

But while the briefings should capture a greater number of younger veterans and keep their participation rates relatively high, they don’t address the soldiers and sailors who left military service after World War II, Korea, Vietnam or other periods.

“Sometimes there’s this warrior ethic – I served proudly and didn’t get hurt,” Curtin said. “Those benefits are for somebody else. There’s a mentality and pride and they don’t look into their benefits. … We’ve got to reach out to World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans who might never have looked at these benefits before.”


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