VA Enhanced Monthly Benefits:

Recipient Population Is Changing, and Awareness Could Be Improved

GAO-12-153: Published: Dec 14, 2011. Publicly Released: Jan 13, 2012.

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Daniel Bertoni
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What GAO Found

According to VA data during fiscal years 2000 to 2010, most enhanced monthly benefit recipients were veterans, over age 65, and receiving the A&A enhancement as part of their pension benefit. The recipient population is changing, however. In particular, the percentage of enhanced monthly benefit recipients age 65 or younger increased from 18 percent to 24 percent over the decade. Also, the percentage of recipients paid benefits under the disability compensation program increased from 15 percent to 26 percent. The cost of enhanced monthly benefits has increased from $124 million in fiscal year 2000 to $409 million in fiscal year 2010; however, VA does not know what portion of these costs was paid specifically for A&A and Housebound benefits. VA maintains data on enhanced monthly benefit recipients’ total payments but does not separately identify the amount awarded as an A&A or Housebound benefit. VA officials stated that under its current system, separately tracking the costs of these benefits would be complicated and difficult.

Enhanced monthly benefits helped veterans obtain services to perform everyday living activities in different ways, but high service costs and limited service availability in some areas can make it difficult to acquire the services. Benefit recipients GAO spoke with said that they used their benefits to pay for in-home services by private providers, offset lost income from family members who provided care for them, or defray the costs of an assisted living facility. However, obtaining services from private providers can still pose difficulties for some recipients because of the generally higher cost of services in large urban areas or the limited availability of services in rural areas.

VA conducts a number of outreach activities to educate veterans and their family members about available benefits; however, a large number of elderly veterans may not be aware of their potential eligibility for enhanced monthly benefits. A VA study found that of pension recipients—who are mainly elderly veterans—62 percent might be eligible for enhanced monthly benefits but only 22 percent received them, which the study primarily attributed to lack of awareness about the benefits. VA’s outreach efforts may not be sufficient to inform elderly veterans about enhanced monthly benefits because outreach activities do not typically focus on these benefits, some printed material lacks information on eligibility and application requirements for these benefits, and the extent to which regional offices conduct elderly outreach varies, among other reasons.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers Aid and Attendance (A&A) benefits to individuals who need regular assistance and the attendance of another person or Housebound benefits to individuals who are substantially confined to their homes. These benefits, which increase recipients’ monthly disability compensation or pension payments, are called enhanced compensation or enhanced pension, respectively—collectively referred to as enhanced monthly benefits. This report describes (1) characteristics of enhanced monthly benefit recipients; (2) how the benefits help veterans obtain needed services, and the associated difficulties they face in obtaining these services; and (3) VA’s efforts to educate veterans and their family members about the availability of the benefits. GAO’s work included analyzing VA case-level demographic data from fiscal years 2000 to 2010 on enhanced monthly benefit recipients, conducting facilitated focus groups with veterans and their family representatives, and interviewing VA headquarters and regional officials on VA’s outreach efforts for enhanced monthly benefits, as well as reviewing relevant federal laws and regulations.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that VA conduct more focused outreach to better educate potential recipients about enhanced monthly benefits. VA agreed with the recommendation and described a number of actions it would take or explore to address it, such as including more detailed information in its printed material on enhanced monthly benefits.

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Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To enable VA to improve its efforts to educate veterans and their family members about enhanced monthly benefits, the Secretary of VA should direct the Undersecretary for Benefits to take steps to conduct more focused outreach to potential recipients, which could entail the following: 1) improving communication of and accessibility to information about enhanced monthly benefits. Such efforts could include (1) providing more information in the VA benefits handbook and other informational material on VA benefits, (2) increasing the visibility of links on VA's website to information about these benefits, and (3) using local or national broadcast and print media to disseminate information about these benefits. 2) Continuing efforts to establish specific performance goals and metrics for increasing outreach to elderly veterans. 3) Providing more detailed guidance to regional offices on how elderly outreach should be conducted and on the specific duties of outreach coordinators.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

    Status: Open

    Comments: VA concurred with our recommendation and planned to take steps to address it. For example, the agency stated that it would include more detailed language about enhanced monthly benefits in its 2012 Federal Benefits for Veterans, Dependents and Survivors handbook, as well as post information about these benefits on VA's website, the joint VA/Department of Defense eBenefits portal, and VA social media directories, such as Facebook and Twitter. The agency also stated that it would explore the feasibility of targeted direct mailings to veteran and survivor pension recipients to inform them of the eligibility requirements for enhanced benefits and the application process. As part of its efforts to establish specific performance goals and metrics, VA stated that it plans to analyze available data related to its current outreach efforts to clarify expectations and address measures and standards of outreach to elderly veterans and survivors. Additionally, they will provide guidance to regional offices in various ways on how to conduct elderly outreach, such as through regular conference calls and national awareness training for outreach coordinators. GAO will close this recommendation when these efforts are completed.

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