John Sanders has been navigating the confusing and frustrating maze set up by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and their disabled veterans benefits since he became a quadriplegic after being shot in the back while stationed in Saigon at the age of 23. Now 65, Sanders has lived a full life despite being a person with disabilities. He’s an avid reader and can chat for hours. He goes out with his aide everyday in his specially equipped wheelchair van. His positive outlook dims only when he is met with the challenge of planning a monthly budget on his fixed income, paying his rising insurance costs, and trying to understand the complex disability benefits maze. His current dilemma is getting the money to widen his bedroom door to accommodate the new bed he got courtesy of the VA. It will cost a little over $1,200 to get it done.
Sanders could get the money from either his Home Improvement and Structural Alterations (HISA) grant, or his Specially Adapted Housing (SAH) grant–or so it may seem. If he uses funds from his SAH grant, of which he has an available $3,995, he loses the remainder for future repairs. Sanders used his lifetime $4,100 limit of his HISA grant. When the HISA grant amounts were increased to $6,800 in 2010, the increase excluded existing recipients. A spokesman for Veterans Affairs said that he was looking for another solution for Mr. Sanders, but Congress set the grants’ guidelines.
“It looks from the history of this thing that Mr. Sanders has gotten every benefit he has ever asked for and gotten them very quickly,” said Tom Pamperin, deputy under secretary for disability assistance at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).
Sanders gives the VA credit for being more helpful in recent years, however, his earlier experiences has left him dreading every time he has to deal with them. He tells of one experience in particular, when he submitted a request for voice-recognition software that would enable him to do everything from controlling his thermostat and lights to writing letters to friends and family. At the time, he was totally dependent on his mother. A criteria for approval was that the software would improve his quality of life.
He was flabbergasted when, after interviewing with a psychologist at the VA office, he received a denial letter, which stated: “You are currently independent and the requested equipment is not seen to significantly increase your independence or decrease your dependence within the family and community.”
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said angrily. “How was I independent?”
In response to hearing Sanders’ rejection letter, Pamperin stated, “In a perfect world, things like that wouldn’t happen. You have people who are trying to do the best job possible, and they make judgment calls about things. I’m sure that seemed like a reasonable assessment to that clinician.”
Sanders finally got the software after numerous appeals and some help from a paraplegic friend who worked for the Paralyzed Veterans of America. “Those first six months, it was like, ‘I’m back in the game,’” he said. “I wrote letter after letter to everyone. After several months, my brother said, ‘Have you ever heard of e-mail?”
When he’s not trying to unravel the disability benefits puzzle, Sanders’ juggles his monthly expenses. Most of his disability check goes toward his care. He pays two aides and has to pay for fuel and maintenance for his van and house. Then there are electric bills that are as high as $350 a month. His sister and brother-in-law live with him rent-free to help out after the aides leave. However, he is still haunted by a financially difficult year in 1998 after his mother’s death when he needed to hire a live-in aide for around-the-clock care.
Then there’s his homeowner’s insurance. His yearly premium increased from $2,980 in 2010 to his current premium of $3,150, which is at least still less than the $3,700 high he paid in 2009. Steep insurance costs are nothing new for Florida homeowners, but Sanders feels the crunch because his disability checks have not been adjusted. A USAA insurance representative reviewed his homeowner’s policy and discovered some erroneously listed items that, once adjusted, would reduce his premium by $500. Sanders’ previous carrier dropped him in 2010, and he felt he’d better stay with his current state-supported insurer or risk being dropped again, despite the potential savings.
For this most recent home renovation to make his bedroom doorway more accessible, he will likely have to sacrifice the remaining money in the SAH grant–that is, unless he can find something else that needs repair for the remainder of the funds and can be approved at the same time.
Sanders realized a long time ago that he must stay on top of his finances and the benefits system in order to stay ahead of the game. “I don’t see how anyone could do anything else,” he said. ”There is no other option.”
Resources to disabled veterans: