Vets get benefits they didn't know they had
By Kyung M. Song
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
What Jordan didn't know was that he shouldn't have paid a cent.
Jordan, a Navy veteran with a service-connected disability, should have gotten his nursing-home care free from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Now Jordan, 71, who uses a wheelchair, has his room at a Mercer Island nursing home completely paid for from nearly $40,000 a year in newfound veterans benefits, thanks to a state program that matches poor veterans with thousands of dollars in federal benefits they've missed.
"My husband keeps saying we can spend money now, but I'm still in shock," said Jordan's wife, Loretta, 68, who lives in the couple's home in Bellevue.
The Veterans Enhancement Project, which began in Clark County in 2001, was the first in the nation to use a database, originally created to catch welfare cheats, to stretch Washington's Medicaid budget by finding people eligible for VA benefits instead.
So far it has boosted benefits for more than 300 Medicaid nursing-home patients in Western Washington, officials say. Nearly 40 of those have left Medicaid completely. Another 2,000 vets and their dependents have been enrolled in military health plans.
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The project, which is now reaching into Eastern Washington and being emulated in other states, saved Washington Medicaid an estimated $3.5 million last fiscal year.
Medicaid, a health-insurance program for the poor, is funded equally by Washington state and the federal government. Medicaid patients can pay certain living expenses with their monthly incomes, but must use any remainder to cover the cost of their nursing-home care. And state law requires Medicaid to recover remaining long-term-care costs — on which it spends more than $1.2 billion a year — from the beneficiaries' estates after they and their spouses die.
Veterans, on the other hand, do not have to repay VA benefits because they earned them by serving in the military. Yet VA officials admit they have failed to contact many eligible veterans or their dependents about billions of dollars in unclaimed pensions and disability payments.
Loretta Jordan had worried for years that the couple's assets would be used to repay Medicaid. Frank Jordan bought his house near Clyde Hill for $65,000 in 1979. The house is now paid off and assessed at $445,000. In 1995, Frank Jordan deeded the house to Loretta to keep the house out of reach of Medicaid estate recovery. Even so, Medicaid could go after any other property, vehicles, savings and assets owned jointly by Frank and Loretta Jordan after their deaths.
Many others share the Jordans' situation. Roughly 670,000 veterans live in Washington — more than 10 percent of the state's population. When spouses and dependent children are considered, the total number of people potentially eligible for veterans benefits could be more than twice that. But only 5 percent of all Medicaid patients currently receiving long-term care are collecting VA benefits, said Bill Allman, who launched the new program as a manager for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
"That number should be higher," he said. "A lot of veterans don't know they have veterans benefits."
Allman, a Vietnam veteran, said he started the program partly as a personal quest to use the welfare database to help both vets and the state save money.
For many veterans, financial gains have been unexpected.
Charles St. George Jr. is a Navy veteran who suffered a stroke in 2002. St. George, 73, who lived in a studio apartment near SeaTac and has never married, applied for Medicaid after depleting all but $2,000 of his savings.
Until this year, the retired Delta Air Lines reservations agent was paying about $1,200 a month, most of his veterans and Social Security income, for a room at a Federal Way nursing home and later at an Auburn adult home.
Kyung Song: 206-464-2423 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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