Of the 23 million veterans in the United States today, an estimated 140,000 are in prison or jail. And many veterans—imprisoned or not—are unaware of the help available to them.
Did you know, for example, that in recent years, Congress has expanded many benefits for veterans, including disability, pensions, and health care, while easing eligibility requirements? While the changes stem largely from popular support for the troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the expanded benefits cover veterans of all wars and some peacetime service.
Veterans’ benefits are severely limited during imprisonment, but the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) considers an individual free the moment he is paroled or sent to a halfway house or work release program. Immediate access to VA benefits on release can mean the difference between staying in society or returning to prison. You can learn more about the VA by finding the nearest VA Service Center, or calling the VA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Also, visit the VA website for lots of helpful information.
Here are some general descriptions of what may be available to veterans. More information can be found at any VA Service Center, by visiting their website, or by calling the VA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
1. Health Care
For inmates that have been in prison for a few years, a major concern is getting affordable health care. The VA has 1,400 hospitals, clinics, and care centers across the nation. Eligibility is based on an income test, with exceptions for service-connected disabilities. Peacetime service is covered. An ex-prisoner just out of prison who is not working should be eligible for VA treatment. One major change is that he will now be assigned a primary care doctor instead of just taking the next doctor available at the clinic. Prescription drugs will be free or, depending on income, require a modest co-pay.
For those needed more comprehensive care, the VA runs more than 130 nursing homes and contracts with 2,500 more private homes. Priority goes to vets with a 70-percent or higher disability, but lower ratings are eligible for a waiting list. Many states manage their own veterans nursing homes.
In earlier days, VA evaluators rejected all but the most serious injuries for disability claims. That has changed. Remember, a service-connected disability does not have to be a combat injury. If injured while in uniform, the VA will consider granting disability status. Even those who have been turned down for coverage by the VA before should consider filing a new application. The mood at the VA is different under the leadership of Eric Shinseki, who lost a foot but won a Purple Heart in Vietnam.
There is a new understanding of and focus on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not much was known about PTSD immediately following the Vietnam War, and most applications were denied. Today the VA better understands PTSD and is more sympathetic to service-connected disability compensation as a result.
For ex-prisoners looking to buy a home after release, the VA provides 100 percent financing. (Interested persons must apply for a Certificate of Eligibility.) In today’s tight mortgage market, finding a no-down-payment mortgage outside the VA will be a challenge. Even the VA funding fee will be added to the mortgage rather than paid up front.
Many veterans assume one can have only one VA mortgage in a lifetime. Surprise! A vet can have as many as he needs, though just one at a time, and only after the first is paid off. As with health benefits, there are assets and income limits, but if one is recently out of prison, he is more likely to meet the requirements.
If an inmate is up in years when the turnkey sets him free, he may be eligible for a government pension. These were designed for low-income vets, and with the job market so tight right now, many could easily fall in that category. An income test subtracts many daily living costs, and if the resulting net income is less than $11,830 ($15,493 if married), the VA will give a pension to subsidize the difference.
Putting it Together
The VA today is a vast bureaucracy of more than 300,000 employees, and despite Shinseki’s efforts to streamline the organization, it can be tough to navigate. An interested veteran will probably need help to navigate the process, either from a determined and persistent family member, or someone from one of the veterans’ national organizations. Just remember, these benefits belong to veterans—earned through their service to their country. Vets shouldn’t be afraid to go after them.
For more information, contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20420, or visit their website at https://www.va.gov.