Estate Planning Blog Articles

Estate & Business Planning Law Firm Serving the Providence & Cranston, RI Areas

Will Vets Now Get a COLA Increase in Benefits?

The measure was filed by Representatives Elaine Luria, D-Virginia and Troy Nehls, R-Texas, along with Senators Jon Tester, D-Montana and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. In joint statements, they called the proposal critical to bolstering veteran’s finances, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “Lawmakers move to guarantee cost-of-living boost for veterans benefits.”

“We have a responsibility to take care of our veterans, many of whom rely on VA for financial support,” said Moran, ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

“As rampant inflation is driving up the cost of living, this legislation helps make certain that veterans are able to keep up with our changing economy and receive the benefits they have been promised.”

The bill linking the two government benefits is largely routine.  Lawmakers typically approve the annual proposal to couple VA benefits increases with Social Security benefits increases by large bipartisan margins.

However, this isn’t automatic. Even with the efforts of advocates in the past, an annual cost-of-living increase in veterans benefits requires congressional action.

Social Security benefits, in contrast, are adjusted based on an automatic formula that is triggered whether lawmakers vote on it or not.

In 2021, as inflation pressures began to impact the American economy, that increase was 5.9%. Officials haven’t said what this year’s adjustment may be. However, continued rising costs across the economy could push that figure even higher. The VA COLA increase legislation would apply to payouts for disability compensation, clothing allowance, dependency and indemnity benefits and other VA assistance programs.

“Transitioning from active duty to civilian life is not always easy, and a cost-of-living adjustment is the least we can do for the men, women and families who served our country,” said Luria, herself a Navy veteran.

Tester, who serves as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the bill will “ensure [veterans] benefits are keeping pace with the changing economy.”

No timetable has been set for when either chamber could vote on the proposal.

Reference: Military Times (May 23, 2022) “Lawmakers move to guarantee cost-of-living boost for veterans benefits”

What’s the VA Doing about Long Wait Times?

In his recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said he’s concerned about delivering accurate information on appointment timeliness to veterans as they seek to resume care that was deferred or canceled in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data.”

“If you look at our average wait times across the system, they’re good, but it’s a big system and we’re coming out of a pandemic,” he said. “So, I fear that there are outliers where people are waiting too long.”

Wait times at VA facilities made headlines in 2014, after whistleblowers revealed that officials were manipulating data to cover up long delays in care to meet performance metrics. During President Trump’s administration, the department began posting wait-time data online for all VA hospitals and clinics in an attempt to show more transparency into how long veterans have to wait for routine or specialty appointments.

However, in a report released Thursday, the VA Inspector General’s office said much of that data remains confusing and misleading.

“The Veterans Health Administration] has sometimes presented wait times with different methodologies, using inconsistent start dates that affect the overall calculations without clearly and accurately presenting that information to the public,” officials wrote.

In response to similar concerns raised by lawmakers, Secretary McDonough said that “we have to do a better job with that” and said he expects an announcement on changes related to the wait time issues in coming months. We’re working really hard on it because I am frustrated with it myself.”

Broad legislation has been stalled in the Senate over concerns about cost and potential workload burdens on Veterans Affairs workers. That’s raised concerns about pressure on the VA health care system, and if veterans could see a significant increase in the time it takes to schedule appointments.

Health officials have touted new pandemic telehealth options within the department as a way to help ease the burden on facilities facing increased requests.

However, lawmakers said that in rural areas — locations with some of the longest wait times already — a lack of reliable internet access may restrict the availability of those services.

Reference: Military Times (April 8, 2022) “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data”

What’s Going on with Veterans Affairs Medical Centers?

In addition to closing or overhauling 35 VA medical centers, 14 new major VA hospitals would be built along with 140 multi-specialty community-based outpatient clinics, reports The Military Times’ recent article entitled “Dozens of VA medical centers slated for closure, total rebuilds under new infrastructure plan.” The plan in total would add 80 new medical buildings to the VA’s existing inventory of more than 1,200 across the country.

The proposals represent a massive overhaul of VA’s footprint in the U.S. in the near future, which may affect millions of veterans seeking medical care and hundreds of thousands of VA employees. However, the plan must also get approval from both an independent commission of veterans advocates and Congress before moving ahead, leaving any potential changes years away.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the changes are a critical rethinking of where VA facilities are located and how the department delivers care to vets.

“We will be shifting toward new infrastructure or different infrastructure that accounts for how healthcare has changed, matches the needs of that market and strengthens our research and education missions,” he said. “Most of all, we’ll ensure that veterans who live in [any] location have access to the world-class care they need when they need it.”

Congress mandated a reassessment of VA’s nationwide infrastructure in 2018 as part of a review styled after the military base closing rounds of the 1980s and 1990s. Under the plan suggested by McDonough, 17 medical centers in 12 states would be completely closed. They include three sites in New York state (Castle Point, Manhattan and Brooklyn), and two sites each in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia and Coastesville), Virginia (Hampton and Salem) and South Dakota (Fort Meade and Hot Springs). Other facilities recommended for closure are:

  • The Central Western Massachusetts VAMC
  • The Dublin VAMC in Georgia
  • The Chillicothe VAMC in Ohio
  • The Fort Wayne VAMC in Indiana
  • The Battle Creek VAMC in Michigan
  • The Alexandria VAMC in Louisiana
  • The Muskogee VAMC in Oklahoma; and
  • the Palo Alto Livermore VAMC in California.

Seven of the 17 sites recommended for closing are located in the northeast, where the number of veterans (and the overall population) has declined in recent decades. Services at those sites would be replaced by smaller inpatient and outpatient clinics to be added in those areas, or by construction of new VA medical centers in nearby communities.

The plan calls for the construction of two new major medical sites in Virginia (Newport News and Norfolk) and Georgia (Macon and Gwinnett County), as well as a new New Jersey facility in Camden to offset the loss of some of the New York sites. The new construction list includes:

  • A medical center in King of Prussia, PA
  • A medical center in Huntsville, AL
  • A medical center in Summerville, SC
  • A medical center in Grand Rapids, MI
  • A medical center in Colorado Springs, CO
  • A medical center in Everett, WA
  • A medical center in Anthem, AZ and
  • And a medical center in Rapid City, SD.

A total of 18 medical centers would be rebuilt, either on their existing land or at a nearby new location. Three New York state centers are on that list (Albany, Buffalo and St. Albans), as are several other major metropolitan areas: Miami, Atlanta, Phoenix, Indianapolis, San Antonio and Washington, D.C. Other replacement sites include:

  • Bedford VAMC in Massachusetts
  • Wilkes-Barre VAMC in Pennsylvania
  • Beckley VAMC in West Virginia
  • Roanoke VAMC in Virginia
  • Durham VAMC in North Carolina
  • Tuskegee VAMC in Alabama
  • Hines VAMC in Illinois
  • Shreveport VAMC in Louisiana; and
  • Reno VAMC in Nevada.

McDonough stated that the plan will not displace any VA workers or patients in the short-term. Efforts will also be made to minimize disruptions over the long-term. The plan also calls for many improvements to VA staff pay and benefits as a way to strengthen retention efforts, and improving care throughout the system.

The full recommendations would cost about $98 billion more over the next 30 years than simply maintaining the department’s current infrastructure, and about $41 billion more than modernization efforts projected to be needed over that time frame.

Reference: Military Times (March 14, 2022) “Dozens of VA medical centers slated for closure, total rebuilds under new infrastructure plan”

What Does New VA Budget Include for Veterans?

Even with many years of significant budget increases, the Department of Veterans Affairs will need billions more in funding in fiscal 2023 to keep pace with the health care and support services needs of veterans and their families, according to a new report released by advocacy groups.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “VA needs more money to keep pace with veterans’ needs, advisory group warns” reports that The Independent Budget—an advisory spending plan compiled by Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars — calls for a 23% increase in VA program spending over the latest White House request to add funds for priorities like mental health services, caregiver support and homeless veterans assistance.

Advocates say the administration’s plan for fiscal 2021 falls about $4 billion short of the needs of America’s veterans. In fiscal 2001, the entire VA budget totaled about $45 billion. By fiscal 2011, it was about $125 billion, almost triple that total. Ten years later, in 2021, the department’s budget was nearly double that again, at $245 billion.

The White House budget request for fiscal 2022 — which began last October — was $270 billion. Lawmakers have not yet approved a full-year budget for the VA, but are expected to advance discussion on that issue in coming weeks. The administration’s fiscal 2023 budget plan for VA is also expected to be released sometime next month.

Authors of the Independent Budget said their requests for more VA money next year are not wishful thinking but a real assessment of the challenges ahead for the department.

“As we enter into 2022, COVID’s impact remains a challenge for VA, with the spread of the virus and disruptions to health care systems continuing,” said Randy Reese, executive director of DAV’s Washington Headquarters. “In this environment, we made cautious recommendations based on historical trends to ensure the needs of our nation’s ill and injured veterans are met.”

Under the Independent Budget plan, VA officials would see a $1.8 billion uptick to health programs to “close the gap in clinical care” at department medical centers.

“The lack of adequate health care staffing has been a major driver of longer waiting times for veterans seeking VA care, and ultimately has the effect of suppressing the true level of veterans’ demand for care,” the report states. “It also forces many veterans who would prefer to receive their care from VA providers into community care providers.”

The organizations have also called for $490 million above the pending White House request for caregiver support programs, $395 million more for homeless veterans’ programs and $288 million more for mental health services and suicide prevention efforts.

Reference: Military Times (Feb. 7, 2022) “VA needs more money to keep pace with veterans’ needs, advisory group warns”

What’s the VA Doing about the Backlog in Claims?

The VA says that it’s planning to hire more people and use mandatory overtime for thousands of already-working claims staff and emergency coronavirus pandemic funding to help stem the problem.

Military Times’s recent article entitled “VA to hire 2,000 new processors to help with looming spike in claims backlog says that despite that, Veterans Benefits Administration officials expect it to take two and a half years to bring the backlog back down to pre-pandemic levels. Moreover, they’re asking veterans to wait for their claims to be processed and not to panic.

“We don’t want people to worry when they see that number,” said Mike Frueh, VA’s Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Benefits. “We want veterans to keep filing their claims.”

As of the end of September, the claims backlog (the number of cases that have been pending for more than four months) was 208,000—nearly three times the typical monthly backlog total from before the start of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020. The VA says that office closures caused by the pandemic steadily drove up the backlog total for much of last year. In addition, the issue grew due to several court decisions and new laws mandating additional benefits for troops exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. It’s also why VA officials know another backlog spike is coming.

About 70,000 claims related to new benefits rules for Parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism linked to poisoning from the chemical defoliant are due to hit the four-month mark at the end of October. Frueh said officials think the backlog will reach more than 260,000 by then. However, he said officials are processing cases at a record rate, and don’t expect the backlog to reach the same challenges as in 2013, when an influx of new benefits swelled the total to more than 600,000. Thousands of those cases lingered in the VA system for years without resolution.

“We are the front door to VA benefits and services,” he said. “This is a natural consequence of people filing more claims.”

The VA processed more than 1.5 million claims in fiscal 2021, the most ever. However, they also received about 1.7 million claims and expect the number to rise even higher with the recent benefits changes. The short-term hiring of new workers will provide long-term relief to the claims processing problems. However, it will take months before those staff are fully trained and able to handle standard workload amounts.

Since May, the benefits administration required 20 hours of mandatory overtime a month to deal with the backlog spikes. Those requirements will continue for the foreseeable future, Frueh said.

In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough said the department remains “committed to ensuring timely access to benefits and services for all veterans.”

Reference: Military Times (Oct. 13, 2021) “VA to hire 2,000 new processors to help with looming spike in claims backlog

Additional Benefits for Vets?

A decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit late last week will give millions of veterans a chance for an additional year of education benefits.

Military Times’s recent article entitled “Millions of vets may be eligible for extra GI Bill benefits thanks to court ruling” explains that it was one vet’s GI Bill fight that now gives benefits to potentially millions of other students.

The case, Rudsill vs. McDonough, has been pending in federal courts for nearly six years. At its center is department officials’ belief that vets can use either the Post 9/11 GI Bill program or the Montgomery GI Bill program, but not both. However, the case could give an additional year of benefits to those who’ve used up their post-9/11 GI Bill but still have some eligibility left under the Montgomery GI Bill program.

Jim Rudsill, an Army veteran wounded in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq in 2005, challenged that policy, saying it was based on a misreading of the law by department officials. He’s attending seminary school using his additional education benefits, after a lower court order let him start collecting the money, even as the case was appealed.

This was the latest in a series of courts to support his case, agreeing that Rudsill shouldn’t have been forced to give up eligibility in either program and should be entitled to 48 months of education benefits (the existing cap on total government higher education payouts under federal statute.) The ruling affirms lower court decisions that say eligible vets can begin using the benefits as early as next semester.

Under the Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits program, eligible veterans receive 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial help. The Montgomery GI Bill benefits program offers far less money, but still has several thousands of dollars annually to offer vets for tuition costs, if they paid into the program at the start of their military service. That program is expected to be completely phased out in the several years.

If they have a choice between the two programs, most veterans go with the more financially generous Post 9/11 GI Bill program. However, court decisions have allowed for the possibility of another year of lesser education stipend payouts for veterans who can’t complete their degrees in 36 months.

Federal officials have two months to appeal the ruling or start paying out potentially billions in new education benefits.

Reference: Military Times (July 12, 2021) “Millions of vets may be eligible for extra GI Bill benefits thanks to court ruling”

Can GI Benefits Be Used to Start a Business?

A proposal in Congress aims to let some recently separated service members use their GI Bill benefits to start a new business, rather than taking college classes. The legislation would establish a three-year pilot program for up to 250 veterans to pursue “educational entrepreneurial training” and receive their education payouts in the form of start-up capital, instead of the traditional tuition payments.

However, the bill hasn’t gained much legislative traction in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “Use your GI Bill benefits to start a business? Lawmakers push pilot program.”

“Higher education is essential for many [veterans], but some have a different calling,” said Rep Ben Cline, R-Va. and a sponsor of the measure. “Veterans are seeking more options and want the choice to use their GI Bill benefit to start their own business. It’s common sense to offer veterans a choice in accessing resources, training and support to pursue the American dream to start a small business, create jobs and generate growth in our economy.”

Roughly 1.7 million veterans have some unused GI Bill benefits, and a new court ruling could provide a pathway to accessing them for the first time. Under the current post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits program, eligible veterans get 36 months of tuition payouts, housing stipends and other financial assistance. In certain situations, service members can also transfer that benefit to a spouse or dependents for their college classes.

More than 2.5 million businesses in America are veteran-owned, making up just under 10% of all American small businesses. Supporters of the Veterans Entrepreneurship Act say that individuals interested in pursuing that path after military service should not be shut out from using their earned benefits.

“By helping veterans start businesses, we are investing in America’s best and brightest,” co-sponsor Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif., said in a statement.

“When our service members transition into civilian life, they bring considerable skills and experiences with them. Veterans know how to manage risk on the battlefield. And that’s what a successful entrepreneur does — manage risk.”

However, the bill has faced resistance in the past partly due to the fact that they are designed to help promote veteran entrepreneurship and employment, and in part because of concerns that misuse of the college benefit could result in long-term financial disadvantages for veterans.

Versions of the idea have made some progress in both the House and Senate in recent years but have not reached final approval from both chambers. No timeline has been set for a hearing or vote on the new proposal.

Reference: Military Times (July 16, 2021) “Use your GI Bill benefits to start a business? Lawmakers push pilot program”

Will Vets Get More Time to Apply for Veterans’ Group Life Insurance?

The Department of Veterans Affairs has extended the deadline to apply for Veterans’ Group Life Insurance to include service members leaving the military through Dec. 11, 2021. During the pandemic, the VA provided more application time to anyone leaving the military from June 11, 2020, through June 11, 2021. The move allows troops leaving in the second half of last year to also get some extra time.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “More troops get extension to apply for veterans life insurance” tells us how it works for those whose separation dates are between June 11, 2020, and Dec. 11, 2021:

  • To apply for VGLI without a health review to provide proof of good health, service members will be allowed to 330 days after they separate from the military, an increase of 90 days over the standard period of 240 days and
  • To apply with a health review of good health, service members will have up to one year and 210 days after leaving the service—an increase of 90 days over the standard period of one year and 120 days.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says that the extension is aimed at relieving some of the financial effects of the pandemic for former service members, “especially those with disabilities incurred while in service, since many of these former members would otherwise not qualify for a private commercial plan of insurance due to such disabilities,” the VA states. Some troops may also have challenges with visiting their health care provider to get their medical records, according to the VA.

The Veterans’ Group Life Insurance coverage is an option for those who have Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage. This permits them to convert their existing SGLI coverage to VGLI coverage. Both programs are administered by the Office of Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance, and are supervised by the VA.

VGLI coverage is more expensive than Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance coverage. It increases in cost every five years up to age 80. Therefore, for instance, $400,000 worth of SGLI coverage costs the same — $25 a month — regardless of age. VGLI coverage of $400,000 at age 30 costs $36 a month, and at age 40 costs $64 a month. However, life insurance policies can be purchased in increments of $10,000 up to $400,000. Thus, a $10,000 policy would cost $1.60 a month for a 40-year-old.

Service members should shop around for life insurance and have a policy in hand well before their VGLI application deadline to ensure they have coverage, if there are health conditions that might make them ineligible for commercial life insurance coverage.

Reference: Military Times (June 18, 2021) “More troops get extension to apply for veterans life insurance”

New Rules for Burial at Arlington National Cemetery

In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director of Army National Military Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, said she expects revisions to those rules in coming months, but would not say whether that would tighten or loosen the proposed eligibility restrictions.

Military Times’ recent article entitled “As space dwindles, final rules on burial eligibility for Arlington Cemetery expected this fall,” reports that new eligibility rules for Arlington Cemetery would exclude most non-combat veterans.

“We continue to explore all viable options to ensure Arlington National Cemetery continues to honor our nation’s heroes for generations to come,” she said. “It’s really an impossible problem for us. The eligible population is more than 22 million … currently today, we have less than 85,000 spaces.”

The proposed changes are aimed at extending the use of the cemetery for several more decades.

In 2019, Army officials suggested restricting all below-ground burial sites to combat heroes, battle casualties and a small pool of notable dignitaries. Other veterans would be eligible for placement of cremated remains in above-ground structures at the cemetery. However, many veteran groups were against this, saying it could upset numerous families’ end-of-life plans and risks the perception that certain military experiences are more valuable than others.

About 400,000 individuals are buried at Arlington now, and roughly 7,000 individuals are interred at the cemetery annually.  those numbers were reduced last year due to COVID restrictions.

The expansion plans are expected to add about 80,000 new burial spaces to the cemetery.

“Without changes to eligibility, Arlington National Cemetery will run out of space for new burials in the early 2040s or the mid-2060s with the construction of the Southern Expansion project, even for those service members who are killed in action or are recipients of the Medal of Honor.”

With the eligibility changes, officials estimate the site can remain an active cemetery for more than 150 years.

These proposed rule changes for Arlington wouldn’t change the veterans cemetery sites run by the Department of Veterans Affairs across the country.

Reference: Military Times (May 5, 2021) “As space dwindles, final rules on burial eligibility for Arlington Cemetery expected this fall”

Can I Be Paid for Caring for a Loved One?

AARP’s recent article entitled “Can I Get Paid to Be a Caregiver for a Family Member?” says that roughly 53 million Americans provide care without pay to an ailing or aging loved one. They do so for an average of nearly 24 hours per week. The study was done by the “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” report by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC).

Medicaid. All 50 states and DC have self-directed Medicaid services for long-term care. These programs let states grant waivers that allow qualified people to manage their own long-term home-care services, as an alternative to the traditional model where services are managed by an agency. In some states, that can include hiring a family member to provide care. The benefits, coverage, eligibility, and rules differ from state to state.

Veterans have four plans for which they may qualify:

Veteran Directed Care. This plan lets qualified former service members manage their own long-term services and supports. It is available in 37 states, DC, and Puerto Rico for veterans of all ages who are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration health care system and need the level of care a nursing facility provides but want to live at home or the home of a loved one.

Aid and Attendance (A&A) benefits. This program supplements a military pension to help cover the cost of a caregiver, who may be a family member. These benefits are available to veterans who qualify for VA pensions and meet certain criteria. In addition, surviving spouses of qualifying veterans may be eligible for this benefit.

Housebound benefits. Vets who get a military pension and are substantially confined to their immediate premises because of permanent disability can apply for a monthly pension supplement.

Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. This program gives a monthly stipend to a vet’s family members who serve as caregivers who need assistance with everyday activities because of a traumatic injury sustained in the line of duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001.

Other caregiver benefits through the program include the following:

  • Access to health insurance and mental health services, including counseling
  • Comprehensive training
  • Lodging and travel expenses incurred when accompanying vets going through care; and
  • Up to 30 days of respite care per year.

Payment by a family member. If the person requiring assistance is mentally sound and has sufficient financial resources, that person can pay a family member for the same services a professional home health care worker would provide.

Reference: AARP (May 15, 2021) “Can I Get Paid to Be a Caregiver for a Family Member?”