The Veterans Administration website is rather like the agency itself: huge, sprawling, confusing and often hard to get what you want from it. Change is in the air and improvements are forecast. But for now we must deal with what it is.
During the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012 great promises were made regarding veterans’ benefits and their administration. But increased funding (up 86% since 2009) has unfortunately not translated into meaningful changes for veterans and their families.
A new and responsive website is promised and in the works. But for now the most complete resource for determining and getting the benefits you have earned is still va.gov. And some changes have certainly taken place to help you navigate the site and the system. “MyVA” is a plan to transform the system in a way that is - appropriately - Veteran Centered. While they work toward a worthy goal of being the #1 customer-service agency in the government, let’s take a look at what we have to work with today:
Discover your program today!
News September 2018 VA.gov is still alive and updating. It especially has useful information for you if you are a veteran in the path of hurricanes and other storms. Are you in the path of Hurricane Florence or other major disturbances? You can check the website to get up to date information about medical centers and possible closures. You can also download a brochure about the VA’s disaster assistance services. If you refer to contact someone by phone you can call toll free at 1-800-507-4571. Whether or not you are affected by a disaster you can always keep current on information and services by reading the VA department’s blog — sign up on the website.
Update March 2018
The VA has recently announced a new program that will make it easy to get needed health care to vets who live in fairly rural places — especially those with PTSD and other mental health care issues.The TOP program (Telemedicine Outreach for PTSD) will provide remote access to psychotherapy and other types of assistance. The program has been under development for some time and is confident the level of care provided will be equivalent in safety and quality to the care provided in person by doctors. Now travel to cities will not pose a problem for vets seeking health. And so far over 500 vets have participated in the study that has made the program possible.
Update May 2017
While some budget areas are being cut — at least in terms of their rate of growth — the budget proposed for the VA comes in strong at $186.5 billion. The request emphasizes priorities including top quality health care services and efficient access to benefits available for vets. Health care will be expanded to more than 7 million patients. The largest categories in the health care budget for VA services are treatment for traumatic brain injuries and for Hepatitis-C, programs for homeless vets and those who are at-risk, benefits for Caregivers, long term care expenses, mental health, and community care. This is good news and a major step toward fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises to vets.
News February 2017 What’s happening — and what will happen — with VA healthcare programs? Hard to say. President Trump during his campaign outlined many bold plans to shake things up at the VA, including a potential move toward privatizing veterans’ healthcare programs, or at least providing a choice. It appears now that he may have listened to a number of vet groups concerned with those potential plans. And his surprise choice of VA Undersecretary Shulkin that those plans may be changing. While Shulkin is not a vet he does have roots in the military and has been said to be known as a “turnaround artist.” Let’s hope that’s the case and stay tuned for good news — from his reported comments, Shulkin sounds like a man of little patience who wants to get things done!
News October 2016 A major issue over the past several years has been the alarming incidence of suicide among veterans. A study in 2014 reported that over 7400 vets took their own lives. That is equivalent to 18% of the U.S. population, and veterans are only 9% of the same population. Perhaps as a result of that study a big emphasis is being placed on learning to detect probably suicides and provide help to those individuals and those who care for the. An important finding was that more than 70% of those who took their own lives were not regular users of VA services. That’s in spite of the fact that there are 300 Community Centers and 80 mobile feet centers located throughout the U.s. as well as American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. These centers provide counseling and social and psychological services as well as other support. A major header on the VA website now highlights suicide prevention, and offers guidance for veterans and for their families. To learn more just click “Suicide Prevention” in the blue section below the big graphic at the top of the page and follow the prompts according to your needs.
Back to Benefits for Veterans
va.gov is definitely extensive. Part of the dissatisfaction that results from some folks’ use of the site is that it attempts to be all things to all people. That means it serves government agencies and organizations as well as individual veterans and their families. So for example, when you see the heading under the Resources tab that says Grants Management Services, you might expect clicking it to take you to a place that would tell you what grants might be available to you. But it is totally designed just for other government offices in language that will not make sense to you. And if you click Veteran-Focused Federal Financial Assistance you will basically see a catalog of current programs rather than something that will guide you to specific benefits you may be seeking.
With that said let’s take a look at positive aspects of the site — and how it can help you find the benefits you need and have earned.
On the opening page of the va.gov website you will see small tabs with topics across the top, a slider that rotates several topics in a large portion near the top, and then three major categories across the bottom. If you are looking for benefits, wait for the topic titled “ExploreVA” and click that. It will side-step all the miscellaneous information and take you directly to a guide that can help you find information about the benefits for which you could be eligible. The page it takes you to highlights nine topics in three rows of three: Disability Compensation, Education and Training, Employment Services, Health Care, Home Loans and Housing-Related Assistance, Life Insurance, Memorial Benefits, Pension, and Spouses, Dependents, and Survivors. If you know just what you want, click one of them. But if you want to find out what specific benefits you qualify for, click the red button in the upper part of the page that says “Get Started.”
This link will take you to the VA Benefits Navigator. The Navigator — which takes less than 20 minutes and promises to keep your information secure — will have you answer questions about yourself. Based on your answers, it will then tell you what specific benefits you are eligible for. For each benefit category on your list there is a red “Explore” button that provides more information so you can follow up.
If you are not exploring to find all the benefits that could pertain to you, you can choose to look into two other major topics on the home page: Health Care and Burials & Memorials. If you are interested in what benefits and programs other organizations provide for veterans, check out this review of Grants for Veterans. And if you are interested in starting a new business check out what the Small Business Administration is doing for you! Note in particular the SBA Veterans Advantage Initiative that can not only help you get a business loan but also avoid fees on loans of less than $350,000.
Please note that if you have an urgent need or issue you can always call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255. There is also a search box at the upper right of the landing page if you cannot find the topic you are looking for.
Health care is one of the most important benefits provided by the VA. You can easily learn about it and apply on the VA website. The VA is the largest integrated health care provider in the U.S, with 1700 sites where health care is available. While there have been complaints and controversy about many aspects of this system, improvements are ongoing.
In May of 2016 the VA announced a new program to improve veterans’ access to health care. As one of the biggest issues has been access and wait times for appointments that is the current focus. Currently there are 34 VA locations that offer same-day appointments. They intend to be able to offer same-day appointments when medically necessary in every location by the end of 2016. That will be a major improvement! You can keep up with the plan’s progress and how it affects you on the va.gov website. On the home page you can also provide your email address to be notified of benefit-related news.
Veterans are eligible for VA health care if they received a discharge other than dishonorable. Most of the care is free of cost. There may be some requirements to pay small copays or to pay for some prescriptions. If you are a vet and have not applied for VA health care you should do so right away. It meets your coverage requirement for the Affordable Care Act and you don’t need any add-on insurance.
To apply for VA health care you will need your proof of discharge (like a DD-214). You’ll also be asked to provide additional information if you are covered by a spouse or partner’s health care plan. You will also be asked for information about your and you family’s income. You can apply online on va.gov or you can apply by phone, mail or in person at any VA Medical Center or clinic. To apply by phone call 1-877-222-8387. If you don’t know where the nearest hospital is you can enter your zip code in the “Quick Links” section of va.gov and it will show you.
While VA.gov may seem a bit overwhelming, don’t give up! Use this guide to home in on the topics of most interest to you. And definitely take advantage of all the benefits you have earned!