Moms

Seniors may need help to determine benefits

My 84-year-old parents recently had some good news and bad news about their future government benefits.

The good news was they learned from a seminar that because my dad was in the military during wartime, he and my mom are eligible for a veteran's pension if their income dips under a certain point. The benefit is a monthly payment that could also be passed on to my mother if my father is deceased.

This was money they did not know they could tap into.

The bad news is they also learned that if my father dies first, my mother will receive less than half of their current Social Security income after he's gone.

This they also didn't realize.

Welcome to the world of government benefit dodge ball.

Government and private benefits, especially for seniors, can easily be missed or misunderstood as to who qualifies.

"We do see a gap between what seniors know and what is available to them," said Christina Bartha, benefits counseling manager with the United Way Area Agency on Aging for Tarrant County. "The system is complex, and it can be overwhelming."

Carol Ray, one of the three local benefits counselors for the agency, said she routinely sees people who don't realize they are eligible for the Medicare Savings program, which can save them on Medicare premium costs.

Often seniors don't realize their income levels aren't too high to disqualify them for many benefits, said Brandy Bauer, spokeswoman for BenefitsCheckup.org, a Web-based screening tool by the National Council on Aging designed to link Americans with 2,000 benefit programs.

"There is a perception that these programs are for really poor people, and people think, 'Oh, I'm not that poor,'" she said. "Frequently, people are eligible for benefits when they are 200 percent or 300 percent above the poverty line, which does fit many senior incomes. And once they qualify for one program, they often qualify for others."

Bauer says that since January, more than 11,000 Texans have used the benefits tool and discovered $54.2 million in potential benefits. Nationally, 2.6 million people have used the tool since the program began in 2001, unlocking more than $9 billion in benefits specifically identified for them.

"That's a lot of money on the table," she said.

You do not need to include your name, phone number or address, other than your ZIP code, and your information won't be stored by the service. You do need to provide a list of your medications and your income and assets for a full analysis of what you qualify for, however.Veterans often don't know about their benefits, said Lisa Waddell, spokeswoman for the Texas Veterans Commission, an agency with 75 benefits counselors across the state to help veterans. Texas has 1.7 million veterans, and about a third of them are 56 or older, Waddell said.

"A lot are not interested in benefits when they leave the military -- they want to be independent -- but as they get older, [they] realize they can get some benefits," she said. "The forms are complicated to fill out, and many aren't Internet-savvy and have trouble filling them out. We know the right words to use on the forms to get them accepted."

Veterans benefits can cover everything from a free hearing aid if they were at a base or in a war with loud explosions, to a free college education for their children through a state program that augments the new GI bill for education, Waddell said. Her agency must work to communicate to veterans what is available.

"Getting the word out is definitely a challenge," she said. In addition to benefit training at bases and community outreach events, the commission recently began airing a public service announcement on radio and television altering veterans to come in for a benefits counseling session.

So, use the resources listed here and check out what benefits you may have now or in your future.

Teresa McUsic's column appears Fridays.

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