June 17, 2024

Money Through the Ages: Navigating the Benefits Maze

JOHN SANDERS lives in a tidy bungalow in this former fishing village north of Clearwater. His home sits on a small hill, on a street lined with cars, trucks and garages now used for storage. The house was built for him in 1978 to accommodate his wheelchair and the other things he would need to live as a quadriplegic.

Sergeant Sanders was 23 when he was paralyzed on Dec. 4, 1969, while on patrol in Cu Chi, outside Saigon, when his platoon came under heavy fire. While trying to call in a helicopter airstrike, he was shot in the back. He spent the next year in and out of military hospitals before returning to the Panama Canal Zone, where he was born, to live with his parents. When his parents took early retirement, they all moved to Florida so Mr. Sanders could get better medical care.

His life over the last four decades has been a full one. A great wit, he likes to read and talk for hours. He and his aide, Brian Disney, go out every day in his specially equipped van. Mr. Sanders’s Dalmatian mix, Savanna, expects and gets a ride around the block at those times when she is to be left behind.

His outlook was formed early by a conversation with a paraplegic man at the Cleveland Veterans Administration Hospital after his injury. “I said, this is going to be our fate?” Mr. Sanders recalled. “What are we going to do?”

“The best we can,” the other man responded. “There’s no other option.”

Despite his positive outlook, Mr. Sanders’s financial life has been punctuated by struggles to understand the disability benefits he depends on and to budget, while on a fixed income, for unpredictable and high insurance costs in Florida.

Heath Whetsel, a financial adviser at USAA, the financial services company for military families, agreed to look over Mr. Sanders’s finances. A disabled veteran of Army service from 1995 to 2000, Mr. Whetsel has his own stories about being denied benefits and getting them only after appealing or working through another bureaucrat.

One thing their experiences can teach disabled veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq is to never give up if they are turned down for something.

Mr. Sanders, now 65, has three primary financial concerns: understanding the labyrinthine benefits process, managing the cash flow from his disability checks and contending with the rising cost of home insurance in Florida.

The Veterans Administration, he said, has become more helpful in the last few years, but he is still troubled by previous experiences, and that affects how he approaches current concerns.

His worst experience, he said, came in 1997 when he applied for voice-recognition software that would allow him to do everything from writing letters to friends to controlling the lights and thermostat in his room. Until that point he had to rely on his mother for everything. One criterion for receiving the software was that it would improve a person’s quality of life.

After an interview with a counseling psychologist at the local V.A. office, Mr. Sanders received a letter, which he showed to The New York Times, that said: “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, growing angry as he told the story. “How was I independent?”

After more than a year of appeals and help from a paraplegic friend who worked for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, he got the software.

“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? ”

Currently, Mr. Sanders is worried about finding the benefit money to widen his bedroom door. Three years ago, he got his first new bed in 37 years, which the V.A. bought for him. But it does not fit through his door. His sister, who lives with him, said she would not be able to roll him out of the house if there were a fire.

The cost to widen the door is $1,250, and at first glance it appears that he has more than that amount available to him through two grant programs. The problem is how those programs operate. Through one, which is meant for larger jobs to adapt homes for disabled vets, he has $3,995 left. Yet, if he pays for the door through that fund, he will lose the remaining money for future repairs.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=b3466a7bb7974b3a907f2651dc778571