RENO, Nev. -- Nearly 2 million poor veterans or their impoverished widows are likely missing out on as much as $22 billion a year in pensions from the U.S. government, but the Department of Veterans Affairs has had only limited success in finding them.
Widows are hardest hit. According to a VA estimate, only one in seven of the survivors of the nation's deceased soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who likely could qualify for the pension actually get the monthly checks.
And participation in the program is falling, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of VA records.
The reason for the lax participation, a VA study said, is that poor veterans "are completely unaware that the program exists."
They're people such as Rose Davidson, 72, the widow of a World War II sailor who lives in Sparks, Nev., on $9,732 a year in Social Security benefits. Frail, legally blind, suffering from dementia and in need of regular assistance at home, she could be eligible for $1,608 more a year under the VA's formulas. That would boost her income about 17 percent.
But her daughter said that neither she nor her mother had ever heard of the VA pension until recently. She's working to apply.
"I didn't have a clue," said Linda Doty, Davidson's daughter. "And at one time, when her thoughts were all together, my mom was pretty good at learning all the options that might be open to her. When you make so little, $100 a month is a lot of money. Now, she just lives day to day."
The VA knows that many veterans and widows are missing out.
"We obviously are here for any veteran or survivor who qualifies," said Tom Pamperin, a VA pension official. "But so many of these people - we don't know who they are, where they are."
A VA report from late 2004 recommended that the agency "improve its outreach efforts" with public service announcements and other programs.
While it made limited efforts to reach veterans or their widows through existing channels, it is "difficult to determine" whether such efforts have been successful, Pamperin said.
The numbers don't suggest they have been. In fiscal 2005, there were fewer veterans and widows added to the pension rolls than in 2004, according to the Knight Ridder analysis of VA data.
World War II and Korean War veterans are dying and rapidly falling off the rolls. At the same time, the department said, it has been "reasonably successful" in signing up new Vietnam veterans.
Nonetheless, one VA estimate of the program shows the potential pool of poor veterans and widows without the pensions has remained unchanged the past four years. The total number of pension cases fell to 541,000 in fiscal 2005, the sixth straight year of declines.
The VA actuary's office predicts that pension participation is likely to drop further, losing 7,000 to 8,000 enrollees a year and falling below 500,000 participants by 2012, according to a VA actuary report obtained by Knight Ridder.
At the same time, the separate 2004 report estimated, based on census and other data, that an additional 853,000 veterans and 1.1 million survivors - generally widows - could get the pension but don't. Of all those who probably are eligible, only 27 percent of veterans and 14 percent of widows receive the money.
The VA-commissioned analysis of the program concluded that "the rate of participation in the VA pension program is so low that the program cannot meet its legislative intent."
Given how much such under-served vets and widows typically receive, the VA would be on the hook for about $22 billion more a year if everybody who deserved a pension got a pension. Given that the VA expects to spend only $3.4 billion of its annual budget of about $70 billion on pension benefits next year, that kind of outlay would break the bank.
"The number is what the number is," Pamperin said of the $22 billion figure. He said that participation in other federal poverty-related programs is also low.
Pensions aren't the only thing that veterans are failing to tap.
Last year, Knight Ridder reported an estimated 572,000 veterans might be missing out on VA disability compensation, which ranges from $112 to $2,393 a month. The estimate was based on an analysis of VA survey data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It resulted in legislation that passed the Senate and awaits action in the House of Representatives, which would require the VA to boost outreach efforts for its compensation program.
The VA's pension program is targeted at veterans who served their country during wartime but have fallen into poverty. It's also there for the widows of veterans who have fallen on hard times.
The program provides a monthly check to bring incomes up to a certain level. A veteran can make up to $10,579 a year and qualify for the VA pension; veterans' widows can make up to $7,094 a year. Vets or widows who are homebound or in need of extra assistance can receive more.
If you are a veteran and think you might qualify for the benefit, go to the VA's Web site: www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/Milsvc/Docs/Pensoneg.doc
If you are a widow of a veteran, go here: www.vba.va.gov/bln/21/Milsvc/Docs/Dpeneg.doc
Or call 1-800-827-1000.