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Veteran’s family seeks to raise awareness about benefits issue

August 19, 2018

When World War II veteran Herbert Schacht was at the point of needing around-the-clock care, his family applied for a benefit through the Department of Veterans Affairs to help pay for additional support.

Schacht’s family had committed to enabling him to live at home for as long as possible, so they used the VA benefit to pay to maintain the live-in support he’d been receiving for about 10 years.

The VA offers certain wartime veterans and their surviving spouses a pension benefit. In addition to the pension, veterans and their surviving spouses also can get an added benefit known as aid and attendance to pay for large medical expenses like long-term care at home.

But Connecticut, Schacht’s family found out, counts the pension money as part of a veteran’s income. That increased his income threshold and made him ineligible for other benefits like the Medicaid waiver program, which was used to pay for most of his medical expenses. The state excludes the aid and attendance portion of the money when determining eligibility for assistance programs.

The family filed an appeal with the state Department of Social Services, which was granted. But they were told Schacht had to reapply for state assistance he was getting — “a stressful process,” his daughter Eileen Degaetano said.

“At the end of day,” she said, “everything was reinstated.”

Her dad, the longtime head of Waterford Country School, and a member of the state’s Veterans Hall of Fame, died last August at age 94, but Degaetano still is advocating that the issue be fixed.

“Veterans are at a disadvantage because that extra money can put them in the same situation that my dad was in, where they need help and now they disqualify,” she said. “When people are in that kind of economic situation, where they qualify for a Medicaid waiver, you’re not talking about people who have a lot of money ... the easy fix is change the policy, remove the barrier, help veterans get what they need.”

The issue came up during the 2018 legislative session. A bill in the General Assembly would have required that pension benefits be disregarded when determining income eligibility for certain state Medicare programs. It didn’t pass. State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, was one of four co-sponsors of the bill, and said it likely would come up again during the next session.

In opposing the bill, the DSS submitted written testimony saying, “While the Department appreciates the intent of this bill, it raises some concerns.”

It notes that the department already excludes the aid and attendance portion of the money when determining income eligibility for its programs, per a 2012 law.

“If the Department were to disregard the income from these pensions, it would result in increased eligibility, increased caseloads and an increase in expenditures. The required funds for such increases are not in place or available at this time,” the testimony says.

The commissioner of the state’s Department of Veteran Affairs, Thomas Saadi, said his office has heard about the issue.

“It’s certainly worth a much closer look at how other states do this and what’s the fiscal impact,” Saadi said.

The fiscal note attached to the bill proposed this past session is vague, saying it would result in “a cost” to DSS, and that it would increase the number of people who could be eligible for the programs. It notes that there were 185,000 veterans in Connecticut as of Sept. 30, 2017, but indicates the number of those receiving the aid and attendance benefit is uncertain.

In 2012, a bill was signed into law by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy that exempted the aid and attendance money from being considered when determining income eligibility for state benefits. At that time, the state VA estimated that 450 individuals were receiving the benefit in Connecticut. The commissioner of DSS at the time, Roderick L. Bremby, said in testimony in support of the bill that “the impact would be minimal due to the small number of clients that would be affected and could easily be implemented by the department on behalf of veterans.”

j.bergman@theday.com

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