By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON — With the majority of Americans who served in the military unaware of the benefits due them, the VA is working to ensure that all veterans are fully informed of their eligibility for healthcare and other services, lawmakers were told last month.
“Accessing healthcare has never been more simple. Across the country, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are utilizing VA healthcare at a rate greater than any previous generation, including an unprecedented increase in the number of women receiving care at the VA,” said VA Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Tommy Sowers, PhD.
Sowers made his statement at a hearing where lawmakers expressed concern that many veterans remain unaware that they qualify to access VA programs and benefits .
“No matter how good the programs are that the VA has, no matter how good the healthcare program may be or what they are doing with homelessness or many other areas, it doesn’t mean anything if the veteran does not know what that program is about,” said Senate Veterans’ Committee Chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Sowers acknowledged that outreach remains critical. Of the more than 22 million veterans in the United States, fewer than half are currently accessing any VA benefits, he said. In addition, a 2010 survey revealed almost 60% of veterans knew either “very little” or “nothing at all” about their VA benefits.
Responding to a question about what VA is doing to reach older veterans, such as Vietnam veterans, Sowers called the strategy “multifaceted.”
“Vietnam veterans are the largest proportion of veterans on Facebook, but it will require more than Facebook: It will require some direct face time as well,” he said.
Sowers also said that reaching this group through partner organizations is key, because Vietnam veterans “represent the largest cohort within the members of veteran service organizations.”
Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are eligible within five years from the date of discharge or release from active duty for up to five years of free healthcare. Sowers said 56% of the 1.5 million Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have utilized VA healthcare, a historically high number. Still, he acknowledged the agency has got to “do better.”