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DoD answers top 10 questions on expanded commissary, exchange, MWR access

DoD Answers


The Defense Department recently announced expanded commissary, military service exchange and MWR access Jan. 1 and established a standard for physical access to military installations. Below are the top 10 questions Veterans have asked the Defense Department about the expanded access. For more information on expanded access, call Military One Source at 1-800-342-9647.

Q1. How do I get access if I have a 0 percent service-connected condition, but my income is too high to get a Veteran Health Identification Card?

A1. Veterans who have received a Health Eligibility Center Form H623A that states they have been placed in VA health care priority group 8E may bring this form paired with an acceptable credential like a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or a U.S. passport for installation and privilege access.

Q2. If I’ve got a DoD-issued identification card because I’m retired, a Medal of Honor recipient, or have a 100 percent VA-documented disability or unemployability rating, do I also need to have a Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC) to get access to DoD privileges?

A2. No.  If you are eligible for a DoD-issued retiree, Medal of Honor, or 100 percent disabled identification card, you should obtain and use the DoD-issued card to access DoD installations and privileges.  While you could use a VHIC if you had one, you would be subject to the commissary credit/debit card user fee if you paid for your commissary purchases with a commercial credit or debit card.  The commissary credit/debit card user fee is not charged to DoD-issued identification card holders.  Your DoD-issued identification card will also allow you broader morale, welfare, and recreation activity access.

Q3. How does the installation access process work for me and my guests; and if I have old felony activity on my record, will I be denied access to the installation?

A3. All newly eligible Veterans and caregivers and any guests traveling with them who are age 18 or older must stop at the visitor control center before entering an installation for the first time to verify identify, establish purpose for the visit, and undergo a basic on-the-spot background check.

  • Newly eligible Veterans must show a Veteran Health Identification Card that displays “PURPLE HEART,” “FORMER POW,” or “SERVICE CONNECTED” below the photo on the front of the card; or a Health Eligibility Center Form H623A that states the Veteran has been placed in VA health care priority group 8E, paired with an acceptable credential like a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or a U.S. passport. (DoD installations cannot accept a driver’s license that is not REAL ID-compliant as proof of identity.)
  • Newly eligible caregivers must show an eligibility letter from the VA’s Office of Community Care that lists them as the Primary Family Caregiver for an eligible Veteran under the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, paired with an acceptable credential like a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or a U.S. passport. (DoD installations cannot accept a driver’s license that is not REAL ID-compliant as proof of identity.)
  • Guests of newly eligible Veterans or caregivers who are age 18 or older must show an acceptable credential like a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or a U.S. passport. (DoD installations cannot accept a driver’s license that is not REAL (ID-compliant as proof of identity.)

If the installation has credential enrollment capability and the acceptable credential(s) used are enrollable, they can be enrolled for recurring access so that the individual(s) don’t have to stop at visitor control every time they want to visit the installation.  Even a guest’s acceptable credential can be enrolled.  It will not allow them to enter the installation without someone who is eligible to enter the installation, but it will allow them to have their credential scanned from the car when entering with an authorized individual.  This is the same process used for anyone who desires entry to an installation.

An individual may be denied access if derogatory information shows up on the background check that reflects on the integrity or character of an individual that indicates that such an individual may pose a risk to the good order, discipline, morale, or safety of a DoD installation or the resources or personnel on that installation. Examples include, but are not limited to, aspects of an individual’s criminal history or current status as wanted or as a known or appropriately suspected terrorist. There is a process for an individual with accurately identified derogatory information that prevents individuals from establishing either historic or current fitness to seek an exception due to their specific circumstances, allowing them to be granted unescorted access. DoD Components may grant unescorted access to a convicted felon, in accordance with applicable Federal, State, and local laws, after considering appropriate mitigating factors such as the nature and seriousness of the offense, the circumstances surrounding the offense, recency and frequency of the offense, the individual’s age and maturity at the time of the offense, the individual’s effort toward rehabilitation, and other factors. Under these conditions, an individual should apply directly to the installation commander requesting an exception to all allow access to the installation.

Q4. Are dependents of newly eligible Veterans and caregivers also eligible for DoD privileges?

A4. No. The Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018, only gave these privileges to specific Veterans and caregivers, not to their dependents.  Dependents may accompany eligible Veterans and caregivers as their guests, but they may not make purchases.

Q5. Why can’t all Veterans have these DoD privileges?

A5. The scope of operations on military installations is sized to take care of the needs of military members and their families.  Military operations are not funded or sized to accommodate all Veterans. Expanding access to the 4.1 million Veterans and caregivers directed by the Purple Heart and Disabled Veterans Equal Access Act of 2018 (and that number continues to grow daily), will already be a test of DoD’s capacity. Inserting another 15 million Veterans into the mix would overwhelm the system and our military members and their families would suffer for it.

Q6. Will Veterans who choose to live overseas be able to access military installations and privileges in overseas foreign countries?

A6. It depends. U.S. law doesn’t apply outside of the United States and outside of the U.S. territories and possessions. Access in overseas foreign countries is subject to applicable host-nation laws and applicable international agreements, like status of forces agreements. The function of the installation also sometimes restricts access. It is best to check with the installation you desire to visit to find out if, as a Veteran or caregiver in one of the new Veteran or caregiver categories, you will be authorized access. Chances are that if you are a retired military member living abroad and didn’t already have access as a retiree, you will not get access under any of the new categories.

Q7. Can newly eligible Veterans and caregivers bring guests to the installations and facilities?

A7. Yes. Guests will be subject to installation access procedures described in #8 above and must remain with the eligible Veteran or caregiver at all times when they are on the installation. Also, guests cannot make any purchases in commissary or exchange stores.

Q8. Which of the following MWR activities can be used?  (This is not an exhaustive list, only the most frequently asked about activities.)

A8. Yes.

Bowling: Yes.

Camping: Yes. Tent sites and RV parks.

Child Care: No.

Clubs: Yes.

Fishing: It depends. If lakes are operated as part of the installation park and picnic areas, no. If lakes are operated as part of the installation outdoor recreation activity, then it is at the discretion of the Military Department, subject to capacity and funding conditions.

Golf: Yes.

Gyms: No.

Libraries: No.

Lodging: Yes.   Cabins, cottages, recreation centers, resorts, and official temporary duty and permanent change of station lodging (on a space-available basis).

Movies: Yes, if there is an admission fee.  (No, if the movies are shown at no charge.)

Pools: At the discretion of the Military Department, subject to capacity and funding conditions.

Rentals: Yes.

Tickets: At the discretion of the Military Department, subject to capacity and funding conditions.

MAC flights: This is NOT an MWR, exchange, or commissary activity and access is NOT authorized.

Pharmacy: This is NOT an MWR, exchange, or commissary activity and access is NOT authorized.

USO: This is NOT a military organization.  USO is a non-Federal entity.

Q9. What conditions are required to get access to the DoD privileges?

A9. Newly eligible Veterans must meet at least one of the following conditions:

  • Purple Heart recipient
  • Former prisoner of war
  • Service-connected disability rating (between 0-90 percent)

Veterans with a 100 percent disability or unemployability rating and Veterans who are Medal of Honor recipients already have DoD privileges, so they are not newly eligible.

Veterans include former members of any of the uniformed services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, U.S. Public Health Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

Newly eligible caregivers must be the individual assessed, approved, and designated as the Primary Family Caregiver for an eligible Veteran under the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers.

In addition to meeting one of the above conditions, newly eligible Veterans and caregivers must possess the specific documentation that DoD will accept as proof of identity and eligibility for access:

  • Veterans must possess a Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC) that displays “PURPLE HEART,” “FORMER POW,” or “SERVICE CONNECTED” below the photo on the front of the card. If an eligible Veteran is not eligible to obtain a VHIC, the VA Health Eligibility Center Form H623A indicating placement in VA health care priority group 8E, paired with an acceptable credential, like a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or U.S. passport, will be accepted. For information on enrolling in VA health care, visit or call 1-877-222-VETS (8387) Monday through Friday 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. Eastern time.
  • Caregivers must possess an eligibility letter from the VA Office of Community Care that lists them as the Primary Family Caregiver for an eligible Veteran under the Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers, paired with an acceptable credential like a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or a U.S. passport.

Q10. Can anyone with a Veteran Health Identification Card (VHIC) get these privileges?

A10. No. Only Veterans with a VHIC that displays “PURPLE HEART,” “FORMER POW,” or “SERVICE CONNECTED” will be authorized the new privileges. Veterans may be able to use a VHIC that doesn’t contain one of these markings to access an installation with a medical facility if they have an appointment there, but if the VHIC does not display “PURPLE HEART,” “FORMER POW,” or “SERVICE CONNECTED,” they will not have access to commissaries, exchanges, or morale, welfare, and recreation facilities.

Learn more about the VHIC requirement and how you can get one here.

Download the Expanded Access at Commissaries, Exchanges and Recreation Facilities fact sheet here.




7 Important Benefits Veterans’ Survivors Should Know

7 Important Benefits


From health care to education, help is available to military families

Felicia Mullaney remembers trying to help the widow of a veteran who had died at a young age of cancer.

The widow was attempting to claim a state property tax break that was designed to help veterans and their survivors, but there was a problem. To qualify, she needed proof that her husband had been totally disabled, but her husband had never applied to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a total disability rating before he died.

As a result, the widow could not get the benefit.

“We’re seeing a lot of people not aware’’ of what they need to do to claim benefits, says Mullaney, deputy director of veteran benefits for Vietnam Veterans of America. “It’s a pretty common problem.’’

Jim Marszalek, national service director for Disabled American Veterans, is familiar with the problem. He says that even though the VA conducts classes for service members before they leave the military to acquaint them with benefits, many service members are focused on immediate concerns, not on benefits that might help them and their families in the future.

“When you get out, it’s stressful. You want to look for a job and move on,’’ he says.

Plus, Marszalek says, many benefits hinge on having a condition that the VA labels a disability, and “there’s a stigma associated with disability.’’

Such feelings, combined with the complicated rules involved in qualifying for benefit programs, often mean that survivors of veterans end up like the widow whom Mullaney was trying to help, missing out on benefits they deserve, experts say.

Some of the most important benefits that survivors should explore include:

Compensation for survivors

Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC) is one of the most valuable benefits available to veterans’ survivors. People who meet the criteria for DIC can get as much as tens of thousands of dollars a year in tax-free payments.

The program provides lifetime benefits ranging from about $1,280 a month to $2,940 a month to eligible surviving spouses, depending on the deceased veteran’s pay grade. Additional payments are available for dependent children. Some parents of deceased veterans also may get benefits if their income is low.

DIC payments are not automatic, and not everyone is eligible. Survivors must apply for the benefit, and the sooner they do it, the better. If they apply more than 12 months after the service member’s death, payments are retroactive only to the date they applied, not the date the veteran died.

The program is designed to compensate survivors when service members die during their service, or as a result of a service-connected disability. It also compensates survivors in cases where veterans die from a cause unrelated to their service but were rated by the VA as being totally disabled from a service-connected disability for a certain amount of time immediately before their death.

Experts cite the program as one of the reasons veterans should apply for total disability ratings as soon as they are eligible.

“If you don’t have permanent and total, try to get it,’’ says Mullaney. “Don’t wait until you think you are dying.”

Health care

Another valuable benefit available to eligible survivors is comprehensive health coverage from the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Department of Veterans Affairs (CHAMPVA). Under this program, the VA shares the cost of most health care services and medical supplies that it considers necessary for eligible surviving spouses and children. In most cases, eligibility for the coverage depends on the degree of a veteran’s service-connected disability.

Comprehensive health coverage is also available under the VA’s Spina Bifida Health Care Benefits Program to children of Vietnam veterans and certain Korean War veterans who have been diagnosed with spina bifida.

More limited health coverage is available in specific situations. For example, service members’ spouses and children who lived at Camp Lejeune between August 1953 and the end of 1987 can get reimbursement for certain out-of-pocket health care costs because of contaminated drinking water there. The benefit applies to treatment of 15 specific illnesses and medical conditions, including several forms of cancer, infertility and miscarriage.  

Another targeted health benefit applies to children with certain birth defects other than spina bifida who were born to female Vietnam veterans. The Children of Women Vietnam Veterans (CWVV) Health Care Benefits Program covers services necessary for treatment of the covered birth defect and associated medical conditions.

Education and training

Substantial financial help is available for survivors of service members interested in pursuing education or vocational training. The government in some cases will pay all or a large part of tuition costs for college and other educational programs.

Two key programs that eligible surviving spouses and children should explore are the Fry Scholarship and the Survivors' and Dependents' Educational Assistance (DEA) Program.

Under the Fry program, the government pays the full cost of in-state tuition at public institutions, or more than $20,000 a year toward the cost of tuition at private institutions, as well as a monthly housing allowance, and an annual stipend for books and supplies. This scholarship, paid directly to the school, was expanded to include surviving spouses in 2014.

Eligible survivors who choose the DEA program instead of the Fry scholarship can get a monthly check sent directly to them to pay educational costs. The maximum amount for full-time students currently is about $1,200 per month.

The DEA and Fry programs can be used for college, vocational and business technical programs, apprenticeship programs, certification tests and tutoring.

Recent legislation also has made it easier for survivors to transfer benefits under the GI Bill after the death of service members.

Eligibility for educational benefits depends on factors including the circumstances of veterans’ deaths, ages of the dependents and marital status of spouses.

Home loans

Surviving spouses who meet certain criteria can get a VA-guaranteed home loan to buy, build or improve a home or to refinance a mortgage.

VA loans have important advantages over other home loans. In most cases, the buyer does not have to make a down payment on the home. Home buyers using these loans also do not have to pay monthly mortgage insurance premiums.

For those who are refinancing, one option is a cash-out refinance loan, which enables homeowners to get cash from the equity in the home and use it, for example, to pay off debt, pay for education or make home improvements.


Survivors of veterans who served during wartime can apply to receive a tax-free pension, known as a Survivors Pension or Death Pension. The pension provides a monthly payment to surviving spouses with modest incomes who have not remarried. The benefit is also available to unmarried dependent children of wartime veterans.

The amount of the pension is set each year by Congress and eligibility is determined by a complex calculation that considers net worth as well as various kinds of income and expenses. What counts as income can be reduced, for example, by certain expenses, such as unreimbursed medical care. For surviving spouses without a dependent child, the maximum annual pension is currently about $9,000.

Those who are homebound or who require assistance for basic daily activities may qualify for an additional payment.

Burial benefits

Eligible veterans and their spouses and dependents can be buried in one of the 136 national cemeteries maintained by the VA. Burial benefits for veterans in these cemeteries include opening and closing of the grave, perpetual care, a Government headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a Presidential Memorial Certificate (PMC), at no cost to the family. Burial benefits available for spouses and dependents buried in a national cemetery include burial with the veteran, perpetual care of the gravesite, and the spouse or dependents' names and dates of birth and death inscribed on the veteran's headstone, at no cost to the family. Eligible spouses and dependents may be buried in a VA national cemetery even if the veteran is not buried there.

When veterans are buried at private cemeteries, the government provides a headstone or marker, a burial flag, and a PMC. The VA also may pay for some of the burial and funeral expenses. Many states have state veteran cemeteries, which may have residency requirements.

Life insurance

Veterans who receive a disability rating connected to their service can qualify for a Service-Disabled Veterans Insurance (S-DVI) life insurance policy, which provides up to $10,000 of coverage. Veterans who are totally disabled are eligible to have their premiums waived.

Totally disabled veterans who are approved for a premium waiver can apply for up to $30,000 in additional coverage, but premiums for the supplemental coverage cannot be waived.


Forget sharing GI Bill benefits — this state could give you and everyone in your family their own GI Bill

GI Bill Benefits 007


One of the most valuable aspects of the federal Post-9/11 GI Bill is that veterans can share the benefit with their spouses and children. But when this happens, everyone’s pulling from the same, limited 36-month pool of benefits — and likely no one will have their full four-year degree covered by the shared benefit.

Not so for qualifying veterans in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin GI Bill can provide all Wisconsin vets with extra GI Bill benefits. And for certain disabled vets, it may provide the veteran, spouse and children each with their own set of 128 credit hours of Wisconsin GI Bill benefits, which they can use at the same time as the veteran and each other. And one person in the family using their benefits doesn’t reduce anyone else’s GI Bill.

The benefit can be used at any school in the University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Technical College systems and provides qualifying veterans with 128 credit hours, or eight semesters, of free tuition and related fees for all levels of higher education.

“Most of the time when I’m talking to folks and explaining what it can pay for the, the reaction is, ‘This sounds great. Where’s the hook?’” said Joe Rasmussen, the veteran services coordinator at the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Veteran Services and Military Assistance Center.

“It’s somewhat unbelievable, but it’s a really generous benefit that’s helped a lot of people,” he said.

Four University of Wisconsin system schools made Military Times’ Best for Vets Four-Year Colleges ranking in 2018 and two Wisconsin technical colleges made our Best for Vets Career and Technical Colleges ranking.

The Wisconsin GI Bill first passed in 2005. The Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs determines a veteran’s eligibility, but the program itself is mostly run and paid for by the schools. A veteran can apply by first submitting a form to the Wisconsin state VA and, once they are approved for the Wisconsin GI Bill, applying directly to participating universities.

In most cases, a veteran must have exhausted his or her federal GI Bill benefits before accessing the Wisconsin GI Bill. For a veteran to qualify, he or she must have completed two years of active-duty service — or 90 days of active-duty service during war time — and must have been a Wisconsin resident for five consecutive years.

In 2017, the benefit was extended to prospective students who began their active-duty service when they were residents of states other than Wisconsin. It’s helped Wisconsin market itself as a destination for active-duty troops looking for a free higher education.

“That’s a lot of what the intent has become,” said Jackie Helgeson, veterans services manager at Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wis. “It’s the carrot they dangle. ‘Hey, come live in Wisconsin!’”

There’s no time limit on when veterans must use the Wisconsin GI Bill. They can access the benefit at any time post-separation, as long as they don’t exceed the limits of 128 credit hours or eight semesters.

And it’s worth noting that a veteran is getting eight free semesters no matter what. If they use all of their 128 credit hours in six semesters, they’ll still have two free semesters of education under the Wisconsin GI Bill.

Family members can also take advantage of the benefit, but only if the veteran has at least a 30 percent disability rating. The spouse of a dead veteran cannot be remarried, and children must be between the ages of 17 and 25 on the first day of the first semester in which the Wisconsin GI Bill is being used. They must have also lived in Wisconsin for five consecutive years, just like their veteran parent or spouse.

“The one big thing ... is the fact you can send your kids to school at a low cost,” said Donnie Placidi, the Wisconsin state VA’s administrator of veteran benefits. “There’s just so much that this Wisconsin GI Bill offers.”

Ashley Peotter joined the Air National Guard in 2014 and is now a senior airman and cardiopulmonary technician. She is currently going to UW-Madison’s medical school for free, thanks to the Wisconsin GI Bill.

She was able to access that benefit because her pulmonary training counted toward that 90 days of active-duty service requirement. The National Guard isn’t considered active duty and thus its members usually aren’t eligible for this benefit.

Poetter said she wished the Wisconsin GI Bill also paid for other education expenses like books and housing, but she’s happy with its provisions overall.

“Do it while you have the motivation and the time,” she advised her fellow veterans. “Use every program and benefit that you can, because they’re there to be used.”

Jacob Carlson has had a similar experience with the Wisconsin GI Bill. He became an Army guardsman in 2012 and is now a first-year student at Western Technical College.

“It’s really nice with the benefits it has, because you don’t have to worry about tuition at all,” he said. "It took a big rock off your shoulders. It made it easy.”

The Wisconsin VA approved 3,490 applications for Wisconsin GI Bill benefits from March 1, 2018, through Feb. 28, 2019, according to Placidi. He also said that 1,321 of them were not Wisconsin residents when they entered the military.

According to UW-Madison’s Rasmussen, 342 students at the school took advantage of Wisconsin GI Bill benefits in fiscal year 2017-18. That included 158 veterans, 174 children and 10 spouses, who saved over $3 million combined in tuition and fee remissions.

In Rasmussen’s experience, the most common reason he hears for why people enlist in the first place is to gain access to education benefits. The Wisconsin GI Bill is the fulfillment of that goal.

“For many students in higher ed, one of their main barriers is funding,” he said. “With the funding portion not as difficult ... they can fully focus on the other aspects of what it means to be a successful student.”


2019: Big year with big changes ahead for VA loan program

VA Loan Program 001


A year full of milestones for the historic VA loan program was also a big one for Veterans and military homebuyers nationwide.

The VA backed more than 624,000 loans in Fiscal Year 2019, with loans to purchase homes up for the eighth year in a row. Younger Veterans and service members are fueling the continued growth of the program.

Nearly half (45 percent) of all VA purchase loans in FY19 went to millennial and Generation Z Veterans, a burgeoning trend that shows how this hard-earned benefit is still meeting its original mission.

So many younger civilians are stuck on the homebuying sidelines, unable to build the kind of credit and savings needed for conventional financing. With the VA loan benefit, younger Veterans and service members don’t face the same hurdles, making homeownership a possibility today rather than years from now.

VA loans give qualified buyers the ability to purchase with:

  • No down payment
  • No mortgage insurance
  • More forgiving credit guidelines
  • The lowest average fixed interest rate on the market

Another major obstacle for civilian buyers is student loan debt. That landscape looks a lot different for VA buyers because of their education benefits.

Younger Veteran buyers have emerged as an economic force in communities across the country. But so many of them wouldn’t be in position to plant roots without a benefit introduced two weeks after D-Day.

Celebrating 75 Years of Success

VA loans celebrated their 75th anniversary this year, and in many ways they’re more important than ever. The program was part of the original GI Bill of Rights signed into law by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on June 22, 1944.

The Loan Guaranty Service marked this special milestone with a 75th anniversary celebration in early June in Washington, D.C. Speakers included Dr. Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and VA Under Secretary for Benefits Dr. Paul Lawrence.

At the same ceremony, attendees also marked the VA’s 24 millionth loan guaranty, which came earlier this year.

While the loan program looks different three-quarters of a century later, the basic idea is still so relevant and vitally important. VA loans exist to level the playing field for those who serve and sacrifice to protect the American Dream.

That mission has proved critical in the wake of the housing crisis a decade ago. Veterans have turned to VA loans in waves during a time of tight credit and tough lending. Historically, VA loans have accounted for about 2% of the mortgage market. They’re now about 10%.

This program has backed more than 8 million loans over the last two decades, with nearly 70% coming within the last 10 years.

Greater awareness of the benefit and what it can do for Veteran buyers has been a key byproduct of all that growth. VA loans aren’t the right fit for every Veteran, but knowing about all of your mortgage options ensures you can make the best financial decision possible.

Big Changes for 2020

This year also brought some important updates to the loan program that take effect in 2020. The biggest win: Effective loan limits are going away for qualified buyers.

In previous years, Veterans who wanted to purchase above their county loan limit needed to make a down payment for what’s otherwise a $0 down program. Removing these limits helps Veterans and military families maximize their budget and their benefit, especially those stationed or living in more expensive housing markets.

Changes are also coming to a key loan fee.

Congress slightly increased the VA Funding Fee for most buyers for the next two years. But there’s also a new exemption for Purple Heart recipients on active duty, and National Guard and Reserve loans now have the same fee structure as regular military.

The VA Funding Fee applies to most purchase and refinance loans and helps keep the program running. Veterans receiving compensation for a service-connected disability and select others don’t pay the fee at all.

After a decade of incredible growth, the VA loan benefit heads into a new one stronger than ever.


VA introduces new direct deposit options for Veterans, beneficiaries

Direct Deposit


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in partnership with the Association of Military Banks of America (AMBA), launched the Veterans Benefits Banking Program (VBBP), available starting Dec. 20.

The program will provide Veterans and their beneficiaries the chance to safely, reliably, and inexpensively receive and manage their VA monetary benefits through financial services at participating banks.

“VBBP offers another way to simplify banking choices to help eligible Veterans select the right bank for themselves and their families,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “The VA and AMBA are proud to provide this opportunity to connect Veterans with banks that understand their needs.”

VA’s collaboration with AMBA will leverage its consortium of military-friendly financial institutions that cater to service members. AMBA is the only trade association representing banking institutions specializing in providing services for military personnel, Veterans, and their families around the world. VBBP leverages participating AMBA institutions and banks operating within the gates of installations of all branches of service and National Guard and Reserve components.

“AMBA and its member banks welcome the opportunity to provide our nation’s Veterans additional financial services options to help them achieve greater financial independence, resiliency, and literacy,” said AMBA president and Air Force Veteran Steve Lepper. “We hope that as Veterans recognize the benefits of working with the banks to achieve financial stability, more Veterans, banks and credit unions will join this effort.”

The current available banking options include direct deposit into an existing bank account, electronic funds transfer into a Direct Express pre-paid debit card and mailing of a paper check for pre-approved beneficiaries. VBBP introduces new financial resources to Veterans and their beneficiaries.

The program is an effort to address the problems some Veterans experience using these payment methods. VBBP offers these VA beneficiaries – including many who have been unable to open bank accounts in the past – the opportunity to deposit their benefit funds directly into existing or new bank accounts offered by participating AMBA member banks.

Neither VA nor AMBA is endorsing any particular bank or requiring Veterans and other beneficiaries to use them. It does not require Veterans who are satisfied with their current financial situation to change how they receive their VA monetary benefits.

All Veterans and other beneficiaries – who currently receive more than $118 billion in financial benefits through VA – are eligible to access this program. There are approximately 250,000 Veterans and beneficiaries who receive their VA benefits through a pre-paid debit card or paper check who may not have a bank account.

VA’s Veterans Banking Benefits and AMBA’s Veterans Benefits Banking Program websites have details for identifying participating banks.

To have your federal benefits electronically transferred to a Veteran’s designated financial institution (e.g. bank), VA beneficiaries interested in changing direct deposit options can also call 1-800-827-1000 with their relevant banking information.

VA financial literacy information is an additional resource available to Veterans and VA beneficiaries.


Military families in line for tens of thousands in benefits under plan to dump the ‘widows tax’

Dump Widows Tax


Lawmakers are poised to get rid of the military “widows tax” that cost some families of deceased service members tens of thousands of dollars annually in lost benefits payments because of federal accounting problems.

Advocates hailed the move as a major step forward for military spouses who have faced frustration and financial hardship for years.

“This has been a decades-long battle to provide surviving spouses the benefits they have earned and paid for,” said Ashlynne Haycock, deputy director for policy and legislation at the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors. “We are incredibly grateful for all those who have fought so hard and for so long to see this and we look forward to seeing the bill become law in the coming days."

The fix is included in the compromise version of the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill, released late Monday night. The proposal is expected to be voted on by the full House on Wednesday and the Senate next week.

Addressing the widows tax has been a bipartisan promise of Congress for years, but the expected cost — $5.7 billion over the next decade — has proven to be a barrier in finding a permanent solution.

The problem stems from how the government handles two separate military survivor payouts. The first, the Dependency and Indemnity Compensation program, awards around $15,000 a year to survivors of Veterans or troops who die of service-related causes. There is no cost to troops or families to enroll.

The other, the Survivor Benefit Plan, gives families of military retirees who enroll up to 55 percent of their loved ones' retirement pay after the Veteran dies. The life insurance-type payouts are subsidized by DoD, but require enrollees to pay-in part of their retirement benefit to be eligible.

Individuals who qualify for either SBP money or DIC benefits receive full payouts from the respective programs. But family members who qualify for both are subject to an offset, where for every dollar paid out in DIC their payouts under SBP are reduced by one dollar.

That costs those families up to $1,000 a month in payouts that advocates insist they deserve. Some families have avoided the offset penalty by transferring benefits into their children’s accounts, but that creates other complicated tax issues.

The problem affects about 65,000 military families.

In the annual defense bill, lawmakers inserted a three-year phase-out of the offset. Starting Jan. 1, 2021, families affected by it will receive one-third of their full SBP payout. A year later, that will rise to two-thirds. In 2023, it grows to the full SBP amount.

The bill will also drop the option to transfer those benefits to children after 2023. Families currently using that loophole will be able to move those benefits back to surviving spouses at that time.

“While we still have to get through both chambers and the White House, it is heartening to know Congress maintained their commitment to repeal the widows tax in spite of having to weigh the many competing priorities presented in conference,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dana Atkins, president of Military Officers Association of America.

The changes do not address the related “kiddie tax,” where families who transferred the military benefits to an underage dependent faced hefty bills this year as a result of the 2017 tax code overhaul. That issue will have to be dealt with in separate legislation.

However, advocates are hopeful that by fixing the offset problem, fewer families will use that financial move in the future, limiting the impact of that problem.

Lawmakers are planning a press conference to celebrate the fix — and reaching a compromise on the broader authorization bill — later this week. The measure has been adopted by Congress in some form for the last 58 years in a row.


VA Benefits for Spouses of Disabled Veterans

Benefits for Spouses


Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC)

Spouses of Veterans whose death was related to military service or a service-connected condition may be eligible to receive a tax-free, monthly benefit known as Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (DIC). For spouses to qualify for DIC benefits, Veterans and servicemembers must meet one of the following criteria:

  • “The servicemember died while on active duty, active duty training, or inactive duty training;” or
  • The Veteran passed away due to a service-connected condition; or
  • The Veteran’s death was not service-related, but the Veteran was entitled to receive VA disability compensation for a totally disabling condition (or TDIU):
  • For a period of at least 10 years prior to death; or
  • Since release from active duty and for a period of at least five years prior to the Veteran’s death; or
  • “For at least one year before death if the Veteran was a former prisoner of war who died after September 30, 1999.”

To prove DIC claims, the spouse will have to establish service connection for cause of death, meaning that a service-connected disability was the principle or contributory cause of the Veteran’s passing. If the Veteran’s claim or appeal is still pending at the time of the Veteran’s passing, the surviving spouse may be substituted into the pending claim as the claimant. If service connection is later awarded, the surviving spouse will receive accrued benefits (i.e. the retroactive pay the Veteran would have received if he or she were alive) up to the date of the Veteran’s death.

Spouses of disabled Veterans are typically eligible for DIC benefits if they were married to the Veteran for a period of at least one year immediately prior to the Veteran’s death. Some surviving spouses may be eligible for additional monthly DIC benefits in certain situations if any of the following criteria are met:

  • The Veteran, prior to death, was totally disabled and receiving, or eligible to receive, compensation for a totally disabling condition (including recipients of TDIU benefits) for a period of 8 consecutive years; or
  • The surviving spouse has dependent children under the age of 18; or
  • The surviving spouse requires aid and attendance or is housebound

CHAMPVA for Spouses of Totally Disabled Veterans

VA will also provide health care insurance coverage for the spouses of certain totally disabled (whether rated 100 percent or receiving TDIU benefits) Veterans under the Civilian Health and Medical Program, or CHAMPVA. In order for spouses to be eligible, the disabled Veteran must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Rated permanently and totally disabled due to a service-connected condition;
  • Died on active duty, in line of duty;
  • Died from a service-connected disability; or
  • Was rated permanently and totally disabled due to a service-connected condition at the time of death

Importantly, to be eligible for CHAMPVA, spouses of disabled Veterans cannot be eligible for TRICARE (i.e. the healthcare program for uniformed servicemembers, retirees, and their families). CHAMPVA benefits are also extended to spouses ages 65 and older if certain eligibility requirements are met. With CHAMPVA, spouses of disabled Veterans will be covered for services and supplies when VA determines they are medically necessary and were received from an authorized provider. Examples of covered services include the following:

  • Ambulance service
  • Ambulatory surgery
  • Durable medical equipment
  • Family planning and maternity
  • Hospice
  • Inpatient services
  • Mental health services
  • Outpatient services
  • Pharmacy (prescription medicines)
  • Skilled nursing care
  • Transplants

Veterans’ Survivors’ and Dependents’ Educational Assistance (Chapter 35)

Dependents’ Educational Assistance (DEA) offers education and training opportunities to eligible spouses of certain disabled Veterans. Benefits may be used for degree and certificate programs, apprenticeship, on-the-job training and more. Additionally, spouses can receive reimbursement for correspondence courses. Remedial, deficiency, and refresher training is also available in some cases. Through this program, spouses of disabled Veterans may receive up to 45 months of education benefits if they began using DEA prior to August 1, 2018. If they began the program on or after this date, they now have 36 months to use these benefits. To be eligible for DEA benefits, you must be the spouse of:

  • A Veteran who died, or is permanently and totally disabled, as the result of a service-connected condition;
  • A Veteran who died from any cause while such permanent and total service-connected condition was in existence;
  • A servicemember missing in action or captured in the line of duty by a hostile force;
  • A servicemember forcibly detained or interned in the line of duty by a foreign government or power; or
  • A servicemember hospitalized or receiving outpatient care for a VA determined service-connected permanent and total disability and is likely to be discharged for that disability

VA Survivors Pension

Survivors Pension, also often called Death Pension, is a tax-free, monthly VA benefit available to a low-income, un-remarried surviving spouse of a deceased Veteran with wartime service. In order for their spouses to be eligible for Survivors Pension, the disabled Veteran must meet the following requirements according to VA’s website:

  • For service on or before September 7, 1980, the Veteran must have served at least 90 days of active military service, with at least one day during a war time period.
  • For active duty after September 7, 1980, the Veteran must have served at least 24 months or the full period for which they were called or ordered to active duty, with at least one day during a war time period.
  • Received a discharge under other than dishonorable conditions.

Importantly, survivors must meet an income limit in order to be eligible. Specifically, a survivor’s yearly family income must be less than the amount set by Congress. If you are eligible for Survivors Pension, the amount of benefit will be the difference between your countable income (e.g. earnings, disability and retirement, interest and dividends) and the annual pension limit.

VA Survivors Pension with Aid and Attendance

Surviving spouses receiving VA Survivors Pension may also be eligible for aid and attendance benefits if they need help with daily activities. Aid and attendance benefits provide monthly payments added to the amount of your monthly Survivors Pension. To qualify for these additional benefits, at least one of the following must be true:

  • You need another person to help you perform daily activities, like bathing, feeding, and dressing, or
  • You have to stay in bed – or spend a large portion of the day in bed – because of illness, or
  • You are a patient in a nursing home due to the loss of mental or physical abilities related to a disability, or
  • Your eyesight is limited (even with glasses or contact lenses you have only 5/200 or less in both eyes; or concentric contraction of the visual field to 5 degrees or less)

Housebound benefits also provide a monthly payment in addition to that which you receive for Survivors Pension. If you spend most of your time in your home because of a permanent disability, you may be eligible for this benefit. However, you cannot receive aid and attendance benefits and housebound benefits at the same time.

VA Compensation for Veterans with Spouses in Need of Aid and Attendance

Disabled Veterans are eligible for additional monthly compensation for qualifying dependents if their combined disability rating is 30 percent or higher. Qualifying dependents include (1) children under 18 years old; (2) children between ages 18 and 23 years old and still in school; (3) spouses; and (4) dependent parents. Additional VA compensation is also provided to disabled Veterans with spouses who are in need of regular aid and attendance. Specifically, if the spouse is (1) a patient in a nursing home; or (2) blind, or so nearly blind or significantly disabled as to need or require the aid and attendance of another person, the Veteran’s amount of monthly compensation will increase.


Lawmakers kill off controversial plan to limit GI Bill benefits transfer to spouses, children

Limit GI Bill


A controversial plan to limit troops from sharing their GI Bill benefits with spouses and children would be completely scuttled under the defense authorization bill moving through Congress this week.

The legislation, which passed the House by a 377-48 vote on Wednesday, includes language prohibiting the Defense Department "from imposing a general limit on transferability (of education benefits) based on the number of years served.”

That refers to plans which were set to go into effect last summer which would have blocked troops with more than 16 years of service from transferring their post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to their spouses or children.

The plan was met with criticism from military family advocates and lawmakers, who said it amounted to punishing troops opting to stay until retirement. But defense officials argued the transferability portions of the education benefits were designed to be a recruiting and retention incentive, and should not apply to long-serving service members.

Currently, troops with at least six years of service may transfer their education benefits to a spouse or child, provided they agree to serve in the military for four more years. The value of the benefits can total tens of thousands of dollars in tuition, housing stipends and related education costs.

Just days before the change was set to go into effect, lawmakers announced they would delay any move until early 2020 while they reviewed the proposed changes.

If the authorization bill becomes law — and it is expected to, given President Donald Trump’s announcement on Wednesday that he supports the measure — defense officials would be forced to drop the idea completely.

Report language with the measure notes that while Pentagon leaders still have the authority to make decisions on eligibility and transfer rules for education benefits, the lawmakers “encourage service secretaries to develop policies that properly treat transferability as one of many possible recruiting and retention tools to attract and keep high-quality servicemembers.”

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., authored the provision and in a statement Wednesday praised his colleagues for adopting the language.

“The Defense Department’s plan to restrict our longest-serving service members from transferring those G.I. Bill benefits falls far short of honoring their sacrifice, and would have wronged those Vets who are willing and able to continue their service,” he said. “Ending this plan once and for all is the right thing to do.”

The Senate is expected to pass the authorization bill early next week.


VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals plans virtual hearings in 2020

Virtual Hearings


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board) and Office of Information and Technology (OIT) are working towards nationwide availability of virtual hearings for Veterans next year, allowing access using their mobile phone or laptop via the VA Video Connect app.

The virtual hearings are based on the Veterans Health Administration’s tele-health platform and lets Veterans participate in their appeals hearings from the comfort of their homes.

“VA strives to provide integrated solutions that leverages 21st century technology to significantly increase the number of hearings completed annually,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Giving Veterans the ability to participate in secure, confidential virtual hearings is another aspect of VA’s modernization to provide Veterans with the ultimate customer experience.”

The testing of virtual hearings began July 2019. The collaboration with OIT, Veteran Service Organizations and other Veteran representatives has been positive. To date, the Board has held 155 successful virtual hearings. Veterans who otherwise would have had to cancel their hearings were able to participate in virtual hearings and receive decisions.

The Board of Veterans’ Appeals (Board) makes final decisions for VA regarding appeals for Veterans’ benefits and services. The Board’s mission is to conduct hearings and issue timely decisions for Veterans and other appellants in compliance with the law.


VA may have to halt rollout of new benefits if CRs continue

Benefits 001


The Department of Veterans Affairs will start to run out of money at the end of the year without a 2020 appropriations, which may affect new benefits for Veterans or the establishment of new facilities providing care.

Dr. Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration, told Federal News Network that the VA will prioritize delivering healthcare and current benefits to Veterans if a continuing resolution goes into the new year, causing the department to have a smaller budget than what was planned.

“We have to deliver the benefit,” Stone said. “Where it will hit is in our ability to either roll out a new benefit or in our ability to build and open new facilities. We are very rapidly going into places with small 10,000 square feet clinics around the nation. We just opened a number of them. We would not be able to open new facilities and hire new personnel and make ourselves more accessible if a budget isn’t passed.”

The VA is currently in the process of implementing the MISSION Act, which brings together seven disparate community care programs into one. Progress on putting parts of the law in place may be stymied by the CR.

Stone said the VA is making progress on the 2018 law.

“It’s a massive undertaking to convert the care from the existing Choice Act, which frankly didn’t work very well, we stood it up too quickly,” Stone said. “The major change for us is we are in the position where we need to earn your trust every day and I think that’s good for us. We stood up all new contracts across the nation. Those contracts are in various stages. We are offering Veterans a full discussion of how available we are and the accessibility of care with us. But also explaining how accessible care is out in the community.”

Stone said even though Veterans have the option to get care in the private sector, only about 10% want to do it. Of that 10%, most only go once and end up coming back.

Stone said the first hurdle with the MISSION Act was to stand up a new community care system, which the VA did this summer. That system made 40% of the VA population eligible to see a doctor out in the community.

“We are still assessing how much care is actually going out,” Stone said. “Bills come in slowly. We are about six months into it and I think we need another 90 days or so before we have hard financial data about how much care is going out.”

The VA is now focusing on the caregiver program, another facet of the MISSION Act, which it wants to stand up in summer 2020. The program helps Vets from the pre-1975 era pay for caregivers.

“A senior citizen is much different than the post-9/11 Veteran where we usually have a spouse, mom or dad caring for the Veteran,” Stone said. “In this case we may have a child caring for the Veteran. Where are we with that? Tough to expand. Over 200 pages of federal regulation we are working through.”

The VA is also focusing on its Asset Infrastructure Review, which will be conducted in the next few years.

The Asset Infrastructure Review Commission will look at where Veterans were and where the VA thinks they will be. For example, the Veteran population has gone from 20 million to 18 million in the past few years and Veterans are moving to the southern United States.

“We are anticipating a 10% to 25% reduction in the number of Veterans in the northeast United States,” Stone said. “We need to have the right footprint of hospitals and clinics.”

The next challenge is completing that assessment; 31 of 96 markets have already been analyzed.

Stone said it’s likely the number of facilities will expand to ensure the VA is accessible to Veterans in remote areas as possible.


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