Commentary

Securing benefits and protecting veterans during COVID-19

Over the years, America’s veterans have answered the call to arms and fought battles around the globe. Many of those veterans who sacrificed to serve others, now find themselves vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19. To those who never hesitated to put themselves in harm’s way, we now ask that you stay home, stay safe and let us help take care of you.

As VA’s under secretary for benefits at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), I am responsible for ensuring veterans and their beneficiaries receive the benefits they have earned. Some veterans depend on these vital benefits to provide necessities for themselves and their families. In recognition of those veterans’ needs, VBA is working hard to continue serving those who served America. This pandemic has inspired us to find innovative ways to protect veterans’ physical and financial well-being.

President Donald Trump has once again brought veterans to the forefront of his administration during the pandemic by encouraging expansion of telehealth and other remote services to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to serve veterans in a manner that honors their service.

One critical step we took occurred after Congress passed the CARES Act. We realized that many disabled veterans who are not required to file annual tax returns would not receive the Economic Impact Payments, also known as stimulus checks. As a result, we partnered with the Department of Treasury to develop a process to solve that problem.

Now, veterans who receive compensation and pension benefit payments and are eligible for a stimulus check can receive this payment automatically.

We are also helping older veterans protect their health by offering a better way to receive their benefits payments. Most VBA benefits are distributed via direct deposit into bank accounts. However, some of our veterans, many of whom are elderly, still receive paper checks in the mail. Unfortunately, the simple act of leaving our homes to cash checks can be dangerous during this pandemic. That is why we ramped up efforts to remind veterans they can receive their money through direct deposit.

We sent messages to almost 200,000 veterans who currently do not receive their benefits through direct deposit. We also posted related messages on social media. Additionally, we partnered with the Department of Treasury to enclose a flyer that urges veterans to opt in to direct deposit, and this is being included in mailings for every benefit check.

Our efforts don’t end there. Some veterans do not have bank accounts and cannot simply switch to direct deposit. In response to that need, we worked with the Association of Military Banks of America to create the Veterans Benefits Banking Program or VBBP. This program helps veterans open low-cost or no-cost checking accounts, giving them new options for receiving and managing their benefits. There are many advantages to these accounts, including helping move veterans away from pre-paid debit cards or paper checks that require trips to the bank to deposit them. VBA’s efforts are to ensure veterans receive the benefits they have earned as safely as possible during this crisis.

As we emerge from this pandemic, we will continue looking for new ways to uphold VA’s mission to take care of veterans and their families.

Dr. Paul Lawrence is under secretary for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs and is an Army veteran.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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