For over 12 years, I cared for my dad, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Before then, as a veteran of World War II and the Korean War, he had never availed himself of any health benefit from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). But I knew that his disease would progress over time and his health care needs would increase. So I investigated benefits offered by the VA because I wanted him to receive all the support he needed and deserved, given his service to our country. It was a confusing, time-consuming and grueling process.
Thankfully, AARP recently released a new, free online tool that helps veterans and their caregivers easily review health care benefit options offered by the VA and Department of Defense (DoD). If I had had the Veterans & Military Families Health Benefits Navigator, it would have saved me countless hours and considerable stress, and also helped Dad connect with his well-earned benefits much sooner.
Determining Dad’s benefits
Dad had left the military after those war years, so I didn’t have any background on common terminology or how to navigate the VA system. I started by applying for the Veterans Aid and Attendance benefit. I had never even heard of the most important document we needed: the DD-214, which is defined in the new navigator! Next, I got him enrolled in VA health care benefits. It took me many months and a lot of frustration, but once he was finally enrolled, the VA was an enormous support for his care.
One of the reasons I initially enrolled Dad in VA health care was because he needed hearing aids, which the VA covered fully. It later supplied him with a pocket-talker hearing amplifier. He saw doctors at the VA medical center and remained enrolled in Medicare, which covered other aspects of his health care needs.
Later, Dad began receiving home-based primary care, which provided a wonderful nurse/case manager who came weekly to my house, where Dad lived with me. A nurse practitioner visited whenever we needed her, along with physical therapists, home health aides and respite care. The VA also supplied his medications, incontinence supplies, medical equipment, access ramps and more. During the last four months of Dad’s life, the VA provided in-home hospice care. These health care benefits made it possible for us to give Dad the gift of adhering to his wish to be lovingly cared for at home until he passed at the age of 94, surrounded by my sisters and myself.
Don’t be discouraged
If you’re a caregiver for a veteran, I know firsthand how hard it can be for you to understand the system and not know where to turn for assistance. You may think your loved one won’t qualify, or you may hit roadblocks. Do not be daunted; carry on until you get the information you need. Nearly 60 percent of all veterans are eligible for VA health care services, yet less than half of those eligible utilize them, according to a Rand Corp. study.
Please don’t assume anyone is eligible or not until you’ve made a full inquiry with the VA or the DoD about their service history and personal circumstances. Having other health insurance coverage doesn’t affect the VA health care benefits you can get.
Even before the pandemic, veterans and their families struggled with where to begin when deciding which health care plan best suits an individual’s need. Between VA health care, DoD’s Tricare, Medicare, private insurance and Medicaid, the options can feel overwhelming. The pandemic has made things even more difficult. In late 2021, more than 340,000 veterans were diagnosed with COVID-19, and VA medical centers have reported almost 15,000 deaths from the virus.
How does the navigator help?
Don’t let your veteran be one of those who are eligible but not receiving important health benefits. I know the vital difference it can make for our loved ones, so I urge you to check out the new AARP online tool, the Veterans & Military Families Health Benefits Navigator, to access critical information about what is required to qualify for health care benefits from the VA. The tool will help you:
AARP also provides free resources for family caregivers, who often play a critical role in helping veterans access the care they need, including the newly updated Military Veterans Caregiving Guide and the Financial Workbook for Veteran and Military Family Caregivers.
My family and I are extremely grateful for the veterans benefits Dad received. I honestly don’t know what we would have done without the support from the VA in Dad’s final years. So be persistent. Advocate for your veterans, and don’t give up until you have definitively learned whether they are eligible and are subsequently enrolled. There are several ways to apply for VA health care benefits, and there are organizations that can help — all outlined in the new navigator.
Thank you for all you do for your veterans. Remember that you don’t have to go through this alone: AARP is here to help cut through the confusion and clarify options that could help your loved ones.
Amy Goyer is AARP’s family and caregiving expert and author of Juggling Life, Work and Caregiving. Connect with Amy on amygoyer.com, Facebook, Twitter, in AARP’s Online Community and in the AARP Facebook Family Caregivers Group.