There are many benefits that come from the enormous sacrifices required of those who serve in the United States Armed Forces, and one of them is that U.S. veterans can offset the costs and hassles of senior medical care, senior housing and even the logistical chaos of death and burial. So if you are a veteran—or you’re caring for one—it’s well worth looking into whether he or she qualifies for a whole host of benefits offered by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.).

What follows is a guide designed to help you navigate the entire landscape of V.A. benefits and the myriad ways they can help older vets and their families.

V.A. Medical Benefits 101

While Medicare is a highly effective program in many ways, it still leaves up to half of an older adult’s health care costs unpaid. It doesn’t cover some services and supplies, and its deductibles and copayments are hefty. For eligible veterans, however, V.A. medical benefits can be one way to cover these unpaid expenses.

Interestingly, some veterans qualify for both. Even if you are also enrolled in Medicare, you may qualify for the wide range of free or low-cost health care benefits provided by the V.A., which provides health care through its own hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, pharmacies and doctors nationwide.

A veteran eligible for care can receive it from any V.A. doctor or facility, but not all V.A. health care benefits are available to all veterans. The V.A. maintains a complex priority system, with the most benefits going to those with the greatest health or financial need.

The Advantages of V.A. Health Care

With V.A. health care, you may receive a number of health care-related services that Medicare doesn’t cover, including:

  • Physical exams and other preventive care
  • Dental care
  • Long-term in-home care
  • Long-term nursing home residential care

Another reason to choose V.A. care over Medicare-covered care might be cost. V.A. copayments and deductibles are generally lower than Medicare’s, including for prescription drugs.

Who qualifies for V.A. medical benefits?

The answer to this question can be complex, so you may want to seek help and encouragement from a trusted family member or friend throughout the application process.

In short, veterans’ medical benefits are determined by a priority system. Anyone who served on active duty in the military may be eligible for at least some V.A. health care benefits. Someone who was in the reserves or the National Guard may also qualify if he or she was called up for active duty.

However, the V.A. health system can’t provide full care for all veterans, so they’ve set up a complicated priority system to determine veterans’ benefits and out-of-pocket costs. The system divides veterans into eight groups, with the highest-priority groups eligible for the most services at the lowest costs.

The priority groups are based on service-connected disability, other disability and income. Veterans with severe service-connected disabilities (i.e. lifelong injuries or disabilities sustained in combat or training) get the broadest coverage; veterans with less severe service-connected disabilities, or other disabilities combined with low income, are given mid-level priority; and veterans without disability or low income get the least amount of V.A. care.

How to Apply for V.A. Medical Benefits

Before you can find out what veterans medical benefits you might be eligible for, you have to formally enroll with the V.A. The V.A. will then decide what priority group to place you in and, thus, which health care services you can obtain. By the way, enrollment is free. You can either get an Application for Health Benefits form (V.A. Form 10-10EZ) online or call the V.A. toll-free at 877-222-8387 and ask them to mail a form. To learn more about eligibility for veterans medical benefits, visit the V.A. website’s health care pages.

Using both V.A. medical benefits and Medicare

If you already have Medicare, don’t count yourself out from tapping into V.A. medical benefits as well, as many people with Medicare are also eligible for some form of V.A. medical benefits. If so, you may have a choice about which system covers a particular medical treatment or service.

It’s important to know, however, that the V.A. and Medicare won’t both pay for the same treatment—it’s one or the other.

You might be able to receive a specific medical treatment through the V.A. system, which means the V.A. pays for it. This could include health care-related services that Medicare doesn’t cover, such as physical exams and other preventive care, dental care, long-term in-home and nursing home care.

Or you can receive treatment outside the V.A. system and have Medicare cover it. If you are treated outside the V.A. system, the V.A. will not pay any part of the bills that Medicare doesn’t pay. To get more details about how coverage works when you have both Medicare and V.A. benefits, download Medicare’s booklet Medicare and Other Health Benefits: Your Guide to Who Pays First.

What exactly are priority V.A. medical benefits?

Every veteran is entitled to medical care through the V.A. health system, but certain veterans with service-connected disabilities are entitled to priority care. When a vet enrolls in the V.A. health system, the V.A. assigns him or her to what’s called a priority group, numbered one through eight. The lower the number of a veteran’s priority group, the higher priority he or she gets in receiving care.

This priority takes the form of earlier appointments, priority in the timing of noncritical care, placement in local programs and care in a local facility when the availability of care at that facility is limited.

The following veterans with service-connected disabilities get priority within the V.A. health system.

  • Veterans with a service-connected disability rated 50 percent or more, or who are determined by the V.A. to be “unemployable” due to their service-connected disability, are placed in Priority Group 1.
  • Veterans with a service-connected disability rated 30 or 40 percent are placed in Priority Group 2.
  • Veterans with a service-connected disability rated 10 or 20 percent, or whose discharge from service was for a disability incurred or aggravated in the line of duty, are placed in Priority Group 3.

How is a priority group assigned for V.A. medical benefits?

A veteran’s priority group status is determined when he or she enrolls in the V.A. health system. During the course of enrollment, the veteran will be asked about his or her service-connected disability rating. The V.A. health system then internally verifies the veteran’s disability rating. The veteran doesn’t have to present any additional documents.

How can a veteran use priority status for V.A. medical benefits?

When a vet is enrolled in the V.A. health system, he or she is assigned a number and a priority group that’s entered into the V.A. medical system’s records for that veteran and automatically entitles the veteran to that group’s priorities. He or she doesn’t have to file any special papers or requests in order to obtain priority.

Where can I get help applying for or using priority V.A. medical benefits?

You can get free assistance with any V.A.-related question or problem by phone or in person through one of the V.A.’s Vet Centers, which are located in every state. You can also get help by contacting the V.A.’s Veterans Benefits Administration office nearest you. The V.A. also has a toll-free telephone help line at 800-827-1000.

For questions about priority at a particular V.A. health center, contact the center directly.

CHAMPVA — A Benefit for Disabled Veteran Spouses and Children

CHAMPVA is a medical insurance program, very similar to Medicare in coverage and costs, that’s available to dependents and survivors of certain disabled veterans. Someone can be enrolled in both Medicare and CHAMPVA; if so, Medicare is the primary payer of medical bills, with CHAMPVA paying many of the coinsurance amounts and co-payments that Medicare doesn’t cover.

Who’s eligible for CHAMPVA medical benefits?

A veteran’s spouse and dependent children are eligible for CHAMPVA if one of the following applies.

  • The veteran has been rated by the V.A. as totally and permanently disabled as the result of a service-connected disability.
  • The veteran died as the result of a V.A.-rated service-related disability.
  • The veteran was V.A.-rated as totally and permanently disabled at the time of death.

To receive CHAMPVA coverage, a veteran’s surviving spouse must not remarry before age 55. If a veteran’s surviving spouse remarries before age 55 but that marriage later ends in death or divorce, the veteran’s surviving spouse may then receive CHAMPVA coverage.

What medical coverage does CHAMPVA provide?

CHAMPVA can provide medical coverage in either one of two ways.

  • CHAMPVA can work as medical insurance, much like Medicare, paying a share of most medical bills for inpatient and outpatient care. For people who are also enrolled in Medicare, CHAMPVA operates like a Medigap supplemental insurance policy, paying coinsurance amounts that Medicare doesn’t pay. To get details on what CHAMPVA covers and how claims are processed, see the official CHAMPVA Handbook.
  • For any particular medical service, someone enrolled in CHAMPVA but not enrolled in Medicare can receive care directly from a V.A. medical center under the CHAMPVA In-House Treatment Initiative (CITI). If CHAMPVA care is received through CITI at a V.A. medical center, the patient has no co-payments or other out-of-pocket expenses. However, because of space and financial limits, not all V.A. facilities participate in CITI. To find out more about how CITI works and whether a particular V.A. medical facility participates in CITI, check the V.A.’s CITI web page.

How can I apply for CHAMPVA?

A veteran’s dependent or survivor can begin the application process for CHAMPVA by visiting the official CHAMPVA How to Apply website page.

Where can I get help applying for CHAMPVA medical benefits?

You can get free assistance with any V.A.-related question or problem by phone or in person through one of the V.A.’s Vet Centers, which are located in every state. You can also get assistance by contacting the V.A.’s Veterans Benefits Administration office nearest you. The V.A. also has a toll-free telephone help line at 800-827-1000.

Using Veterans Benefits for Senior Care

Many older adults will choose assisted living at some point to ensure they get the care they need for the best possible quality of life in their golden years. For seniors who served in the Armed Forces or spouses of former military servicemen and women, there are veterans benefits available to help pay for this care—and the need today is greater than ever before.

According to official V.A. statistics, there are now more than 12.4 million U.S. military veterans who are 65 or older. They fought in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War and protected the homeland at bases throughout the country. They sacrificed, took on great risk and often put their neighbors’ safety before their own.

At the same time, long-term care costs for seniors are soaring. The average annual cost of adult day health care is $17,680, according to Genworth’s 2017 Cost Care Survey. A year in an assisted living community costs more than $45,000 per year on average. And a semi-private room in a nursing home will run you about $82,125 on average. That’s more than most of America’s older veterans can afford on their own. What’s more, employee benefits do not pay for assisted living, which can make it all the more frustrating when it comes to devising ways to pay for senior care.

Fortunately, there are some V.A. benefits programs specifically designed to help veterans pay for senior care, but it does require a bit of effort to take full advantage of them. Here are some of the most comprehensive senior care benefit programs available to vets and their loved ones, as well as detailed instructions on how to navigate this sometimes complicated landscape.

How the benefits for senior care work

There are three types of senior care benefits available veterans: Basic, Household and Aid and Attendance.

At the Basic level, all veterans who are at least 65 years old qualify for benefits, no matter their current living situation. The Household benefit may be a better option for those who need only occasional assistance with day-to-day activities. Finally, at the Aid and Attendance level, veterans unable to sustain a comfortable quality of life without help will have access to the assistance they need at an assisted living community.

The Aid and Attendance program aims to help veterans and their spouses who need help performing activities associated with daily living, including bathing, feeding, dressing and protecting themselves from everyday hazards. It is granted to veterans with both physical and mental health ailments. There is also a component of the benefit that provides funds for veterans or their spouses who are homebound.

One of the nice things about the Aid and Attendance benefit is that it’s paid in addition to veteran’s basic pensions, so it can make a big difference in the type of care a veteran can afford. With both Household and Aid and Attendance benefits, the person must qualify for a regular V.A. pension. Currently, a veteran or a veteran’s surviving spouse can choose either Household or Aid and Attendance benefits, but not both at the same time.

Aid and Attendance and Housebound Benefits Eligibility

Generally speaking, Aid & Attendance and Housebound Benefits are available to veterans who were on active military duty for at least 90 days (one of which was during an active war period) and were discharged from service under conditions other than dishonorable. What’s more, Aid and Attendance benefits are often available to veterans who already receive a pension or to surviving spouses of veterans currently receiving this pension.

Some different circumstances that qualify someone for Aid and Attendance benefits include:

  • The individual either has concentric contraction of the eyes or is blind in both eyes.
  • Daily living activities cannot be completed without someone’s help.
  • The individual is bedridden.
  • A mental or physical handicap has resulted in a nursing home stay.

The following are conditions that can qualify a veteran or survivor for Household veterans benefits toward assisted living.

  • The V.A. has classified a single permanent disability as fully disabling that leaves the person unable to leave home.
  • The above condition applies, and the individual has other disabilities that are at least 60 percent disabling.

Besides the above conditions, vets and their survivors must adequately prove that they’re unable to pay for assisted living on their own. The applicant will need to present several statements and documents as evidence of this.

While anyone who served in the U.S. military might be eligible for at least some V.A. benefits, not everyone qualifies for Aid and Attendance Benefits. There’s a somewhat complicated system for determining who qualifies and how much additional money they’ll find in their pensions each month.

Like all V.A. benefits, this one is prioritized based on service-connected disabilities, other disabilities and income. Veterans who have significant health problems directly related to their service and little income or investments get top priority. Veterans who have serious service-connected disabilities come next, while low-income vets or those without disability get mid-level priority.

To learn whether you or your loved one are eligible for Aid and Attendance benefits, visit The Senior Veterans Council.

What about spouses?

As mentioned above, spouses of veterans who have died may also apply for the Aid and Attendance and Homebound Benefits. Like other V.A. benefits programs, spouses must meet certain criteria related to health needs, income and whether or not they were married to their veteran spouse when he or she died.

How to apply for V.A. benefits that cover senior care

The regional V.A. office where veterans and their survivors file for V.A. pension or death pension is where to apply for either Basic, Household and Aid and Attendance benefits. In the event the specific regional office is unknown, a request for a special benefits application can be made at any regional V.A. office.

When applying, the applicant will need a note from a primary care physician stating that their current mental or physical state qualifies him or her for special benefits. The applicant will also need their V.A. health system ID number to access all of the necessary medical records. Finally, a home care aide, physical therapist, home care agency or anyone else who currently assists the person applying for benefits will need to draft a report explaining how well the applicant can carry out daily activities without help.

While the process can take some time and effort, for many vets, it’s worth it. Financial help from the V.A. can mean the difference between having the care and assistance a veteran needs and going without that care.

Resources for Older Veterans

Since it can sometimes be a challenge to apply for veterans benefits for assisted living, it’s helpful to have access to a few resources. Veterans Benefits Administration offices are scattered across the country, and there are veterans centers in each state that can offer help, too. There are also a range of accredited attorneys, claims agents and Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) that can help.

The right benefits can make all the difference when it comes to aging comfortably. Even if a veteran or survivor doesn’t need the above benefits currently, getting the ball rolling as soon as possible is a good idea in the interest of clearing any roadblocks or delays in getting the benefits you need.

V.A. Death and Burial Benefits

When it comes to the overall topic of senior care, end-of-life planning is an essential part of the process—but it can also be confusing, emotionally draining and expensive. The good news is that there are V.A. benefits that can help ease the emotional and financial strain that accompanies a loved one’s death.

V.A. Death Pensions

A V.A. Death Pension is a monthly payment made to very low-income surviving spouses (who have not remarried), or to minor or permanently disabled children of deceased veterans who served in time of war.

Eligibility for a V.A. Death Pension depends on both the deceased veteran and the survivor(s) meeting certain criteria. The veteran must meet both of the following conditions:

  • The veteran must have been discharged from service under anything other than dishonorable conditions.
  • The veteran must have served at least 90 days of active military service, at least one day of which was during an official period of war. If the veteran entered active duty after September 7, 1980, he or she must have served at least 24 months, or the full period for which called or ordered to active duty.

Meanwhile, the surviving family member must be at least one of the following:

  • The surviving spouse,of any age who has not remarried
  • The unmarried minor child of the veteran
  • The unmarried child who was permanently disabled before the age of 18 and incapable of self-support

A surviving family member also must have “countable” income that’s below an extremely low yearly limit.

Countable Income for a V.A. Death Pension

Most types of income that a deceased veteran’s survivor receives are counted by the V.A. when considering eligibility for a V.A. Death Pension. This includes earnings, profits from a business, Social Security and other retirement and disability payments, interest and dividends.

On the other hand, certain types of income are not counted by the V.A. These generally include amounts paid to the veteran’s surviving spouse or child as part of a federal, state, or local public assistance program based on financial need, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), general assistance (welfare) and food stamps. Plus, some out-of-pocket medical expenses the survivor incurs after filing a claim can be deducted from countable income, resulting in a higher Death Pension amount (see below).

How does the V.A. calculate the amount of a V.A. Death Pension?

The V.A. sets a yearly Death Pension limit amount, which depends on whether the veteran is single or has a spouse and/or minor dependents. This annual Death Pension limit is currently $7,933 for a single survivor or $10,385 for a survivor with one additional qualifying dependent. If a survivor qualifies for extra benefits because of being housebound, the amounts are $9,696 for a single survivor or $12,144 for a survivor with one dependent.

If a survivor qualifies for extra benefits because of requiring the regular aid and attendance of another person, the amounts are $12,681 for a single veteran or $15,128 for a survivor with one dependent. These amounts go up by $2,020 for each additional dependent.

To calculate a qualifying survivor’s Death Pension, the V.A. starts with the set limit and deducts the survivor’s annual countable income. The amount that’s left is the survivor’s V.A. Death Pension, paid monthly.

For example: The annual V.A. Death Pension income limit for a single survivor is $7,933. If a survivor (who otherwise qualifies for a V.A. pension) has a yearly countable income of $6,000, that veteran’s V.A. pension would be $1,933 ($7,933 – $6,000 = $1,933), paid to the veteran in monthly amounts of $162.

Can out-of-pocket medical expenses add to a V.A. Death Pension amount?

If veteran’s surviving dependent has out-of-pocket medical expenses (amounts that neither Medicare, Medicaid, nor any other insurance pays) that add up to more than 5 percent of the survivor’s annual Death Pension limit, the V.A. will subtract the amount above 5 percent from the survivor’s countable income. The result is a higher V.A. Death Pension payment.

For example: For a single survivor, 5 percent of the annual V.A. Death Pension limit is $397 (5 percent of $7,933 = $397). If a survivor has $1,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses, that amount is more than 5 percent of the Death Pension limit. So the V.A. would deduct $603 from the survivor’s countable income, which is the amount over the 5 percent limit ($1,000 – $397 = $603).

How can the survivor of a veteran apply for a V.A. Death Pension?

The survivor of a veteran can begin the application process for a V.A. Death Pension by downloading and completing the V.A.’s online Form 21-534, Application for Dependency and Indemnity Compensation, Death Pension and Accrued Benefits by Surviving Spouse or Child.

You must send the completed application and any copies of other requested documents to the V.A. regional office in the region where the survivor lives.

Important note: If a survivor doesn’t qualify for a V.A. Death Pension due to slightly too much countable income, the survivor can reapply at any time if his or her out-of-pocket medical bills (not paid by Medicare, Medicaid, the V.A. health system, or other insurance) are more than 5 percent of the annual V.A. Death Pension limit for that survivor’s pension category, and if subtracting the amount of those unpaid medical bills would bring the survivor’s countable income below the yearly income limit.

Where can I get help applying for a V.A. Death Pension?

You can get free assistance with any V.A.-related question or problem by phone or in person through one of the V.A.’s Vet Centers, which are located in every state. You can also get assistance by contacting the V.A.’s Veterans Benefits Administration office nearest you. The V.A. also has a toll-free telephone help line at 800-827-1000.

V.A. Burial Benefits

The V.A. offers several types of burial-related assistance to the families of veterans. The type of assistance available depends on the veteran’s benefits status at the time of death and whether the veteran’s cause of death was a service-related disability. Burial at a national cemetery is also available for a veteran’s spouse or dependent.

Burial in a national or state veterans cemetery

Any veteran who was not dishonorably discharged is eligible for burial at a gravesite in any of the 131 national cemeteries or in a state veterans cemetery in the state where the veteran lived at the time of death. Whether a veteran can be buried in a particular cemetery depends on whether there are gravesites available there. Gravesites cannot be reserved prior to their death.

There’s no cost to the family for the gravesite or for a government headstone or marker, which the cemetery provides. This burial site and assistance doesn’t include either arrangements for or the cost of a funeral or cremation — those must be obtained privately.

Spouses and dependents may also be buried in a national cemetery with the veteran. The spouse’s or dependent’s name, date of birth and date of death will be inscribed on the veteran’s headstone, at no cost to the family. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried in a national cemetery even if they die before the veteran.

Headstone for burial in private cemetery

For any veteran who’s buried in a private cemetery, the V.A. will provide—at no cost to the family—a government headstone or marker and a burial flag. However, arrangements for placing the headstone in a private cemetery, and the fees for setting the headstone are the responsibility of the veteran’s family. No headstone is provided for the spouse or dependent of a veteran buried in a private cemetery.

Funeral and burial costs allowance

The V.A. provides a funeral and burial allowance to the families of certain deceased veterans. In order to qualify for this allowance, one of the following conditions must be met:

  • The veteran died from a service-related disability.
  • The veteran was receiving a V.A. pension or compensation at the time of death (or had filed for such benefits and after death was found to be entitled to them).
  • The veteran died at a V.A. hospital, or while receiving care at a non-V.A. hospital under contract from the V.A.
  • The veteran died during travel, authorized and paid for by the V.A., for the purpose of receiving medical care.

The amount of the allowance depends on whether the death was service-related. If the qualifying veteran died from a service-related disability, the V.A. pays up to $2,000 for burial expenses, plus transportation costs to a V.A. national cemetery if buried there. (The V.A. won’t pay this allowance if the burial was paid for by insurance or by anyone other than the person applying for the allowance).

If the qualifying veteran’s death wasn’t caused by a service-related disability, the V.A. will pay up to $300 for funeral and burial expenses and up to another $300 for the cost of a burial plot or interment space.

How can I apply for V.A. burial benefits?

Arrangements for burial in a national or state cemetery cannot be made online. Instead, you must call the V.A. at its toll-free number at 800-827-1000.

To apply for a burial allowance, you need to fill out and submit V.A. form 21-530.

What’s needed to apply for V.A. burial benefits?

For burial in a national or state cemetery, you must provide a copy of the veteran’s (or spouse’s, if it’s the spouse to be buried) death certificate and a certified copy of the veteran’s military discharge document. Form DD 214 is the standard discharge document that’s been used for the past 60 years. But for World War II veterans discharged before 1950, the documents might instead be entitled WD AGO 53, WD AGO 55, WD AGO 53-55, NAVPERS 553, NAVMC 78PD, or NAVCG 553. Find forms at the V.A.’s website.

To get an allowance for funeral, burial, and/or interment expenses, in addition to the deceased’s death certificate and the veteran’s discharge document, you must provide copies of the funeral, burial, burial plot or interment bills, plus evidence that you’ve paid them in full.

Where can I get help applying for V.A. burial benefits?

If you’re unable to locate a discharge document among the veteran’s papers, you can get a copy online through the National Archives eVetRecs request system or by calling the V.A.’s toll-free help line at 800-827-1000.

You can also get free assistance with any V.A.-related question or problem by phone or in person through one of the V.A.’s Vet Centers, which are located in every state. You can also get assistance by contacting the V.A.’s Veterans Benefits Administration office nearest you. The V.A. also has a toll-free telephone help line at 800-827-1000.