With job losses mounting during the pandemic, thousands of Massachusetts veterans are turning to a $72 million state program that is intended to provide them with emergency cash assistance for basic needs such as housing, food, fuel, and medical care.
The Veterans Legal Clinic at Harvard Law School has reported a tenfold increase in recent visitors to its online calculator that helps veterans determine their eligibility for the program, called Chapter 115 benefits, which the state describes as the only one of its kind in the nation. The calculator at massvetben.org attracted 5,000 users in March, up from 500 in February.
But as more disabled and low-income veterans look to the state Department of Veterans’ Services for help accessing the benefits, they have been stymied by a lack of information on the agency’s website, leaving them unsure where else to turn, advocates for veterans said.
Its home page did not contain any information about the program until Wednesday, after the Globe had questioned department officials about the omission. Until that time, a link to COVID-19 updates at the top of the page had included data about confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts and recommended precautions, but nothing about the veterans benefits.
For the persistent, typing “Chapter 115” into a generic search field had brought up information about the program, but on Secretary of State William Galvin’s website.
At a time when many veterans need urgent help to survive financially, the state’s failure to publicize the benefits set aside on their behalf had been exasperating, advocates said.
"This is unacceptable,” said Patricia Baker, senior policy analyst for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, a nonprofit organization. “I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t have a central location where veterans could see information on this benefit.”
Many veterans also have had trouble reaching their municipal veterans agents, locally appointed officials who interview applicants for the benefits and pass their requests to Veterans’ Services for approval, according to the advocates.
The agents’ offices are shuttered at city and town halls across the state, creating a daunting roadblock in a process that usually requires in-person interviews and other face-to-face meetings.
Department of Veterans’ Services officials said this week that the agency is aware of the increased need "during this unprecedented time” and is working to streamline access to benefits.
According to DVS officials, local veterans agents are now allowed to approve applications for the duration of the crisis without first obtaining state authorization. Among other changes, the state will not require an unemployed applicant to be actively seeking work during the emergency.
DVS reported 148 new applicants in March and authorized payments for 8,489 claims from March 15 to Friday, a jump of 1,035 over the same period last year.
Still, advocates said the state needs to do a much better job providing veterans with information about benefits that can exceed $1,000 per month for a single person with no dependents. A veteran and spouse can receive a maximum of twice that amount.
“We urge DVS to more aggressively get the word out about these benefits, including making information about the program more accessible to the public on its website,” said Betsy Gwin, associate director of the Harvard veterans clinic.
Veterans Legal Services, another nonprofit advocacy organization, "is hearing from veterans who can’t reach their local veterans service officer, or were told they don’t have enough paperwork to qualify, even though there may currently be no way for them to get it,” said Anna Richardson, co-executive director and chief counsel of the Boston-based group.
“These are veterans and families who are visiting food banks in record numbers who are worried about paying their rent, child support, and medical bills,” she added.
Officials at the two advocacy organizations said they still had not received a single reply from Francisco Urena, the Department of Veterans’ Services secretary, despite multiple requests over the past month to discuss how to expedite and ease access to the benefits.
“Regrettably, we have not received a substantive response to those communications,” directors from the groups wrote April 3 to Daniel Tsai, deputy secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Health & Human Services, which oversees the Department of Veterans’ Services.
A DVS spokesman said Urena was not available for an interview.
Massachusetts veterans must meet income and other eligibility thresholds to receive the monthly payments. Although the money is distributed by cities and towns, the state approves the applications and reimburses 75 percent of the cost.
The payments are designed mostly for veterans whose income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is $2,127 per month for a single person with no dependents.
Assets and income such as disability payments from the US Department of Veterans Affairs are used in the state’s determination of need. Spouses and dependents of deceased veterans also are eligible for the money, which can bridge the gap to meet rental costs and other expenses.
Richardson and Daniel Nagin, director of the Harvard legal clinic, wrote to Urena late last month that with "mortgage, rent, and other bills looming, and new layoffs, furloughs, and COVID-19 cases occurring each day, it is critical that DVS act now to ensure access to this vital resource."
The directors recommended to Tsai that Veterans’ Services establish direct deposit or electronic payment options, because most eligible veterans are currently paid by check, which would pose a problem if banking services are unavailable or the veteran is quarantined.
They also urged that a remote application system be created, that benefits not be terminated or reduced for existing recipients until the crisis has passed, and that cities and towns receive full reimbursement for that time period.
Baker, the policy analyst with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance already has established a portal on its website to apply for food stamps and cash benefits.
Veterans’ Services should provide similar help, Baker said, perhaps by allowing online applications and then forwarding the information to local veterans service officers.
At this point in the crisis, Baker said, “this is not a program that is flexible to the needs of the people who served us."
Jaime Melendez, president of the Massachusetts Veterans Service Officers Association, said Urena has been in regular contact with the leadership of the state’s veterans agents.
“We’re talking about ways to spread the word, lessons learned, courses of action, how we can do it better,” said Melendez, who is the veterans agent for Lawrence.
“But absolutely, I’m concerned about getting the word out. If you look at older veterans, a lot of them are not using social media or a smartphone. They might not even be listening to a radio.”
Robert Santiago, the veterans agent for Boston, also described Urena as engaged.
“He’s been very supportive. I haven’t had any issues reaching him,” Santiago said. Since mid-March, Boston has approved 17 new requests for benefits and fielded inquiries from 74 other veterans, he said.
Advocates have long believed that state officials are doing a poor job advertising the benefits program to its 380,000 veterans. The most recent state audit of the Department of Veterans’ Services, in 2017, found that only 14,390 veterans and their dependents had received benefits from July 2014 through June 2016.
At that time, the audit found, the department did “not require its staff or veterans service officers to compile statistical information on veterans served and not served by communities and does not collect and analyze other information that it and veterans service officers could use to assess the effectiveness of its programs.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.