Massachusetts is home to 380,000 of the nation’s 21 million veterans. More than half are aged 65 and older, and one in seven lives in poverty. As a result, our veterans are particularly at risk of contracting COVID19, as well as experiencing economic hardship during the current public health crisis.
For low-income veterans and their families, Massachusetts has a financial assistance program to provide both ongoing cash benefits and emergency support for things like back rent or mortgage payments. Under Chapter 115 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the Commonwealth, along with town and city governments, provides financial assistance for low-income veterans, their family members, and surviving spouses, children, and sometimes even parents, when they are struggling to make ends meet.
“Massachusetts honors its commitment to veterans and we will be there to help in this time of great need.” said Senator Mike Rush. “As we all struggle with this pandemic, state benefits are there to help low-income veterans pay for rent, health care, and other expenses. We urge people to contact their local veterans services officers to apply.”
Low-income veterans can be eligible for state financial assistance under Chapter 115 if their income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and meet other eligibility requirements. To find out if they are eligible, veterans can visit the Massachusetts Veteran Benefit Calculator (https://massvetben.org/) to answer a series of simple questions and receive an immediate estimate of their potential eligibility for Chapter 115 benefits. Even if the veteran may not qualify for cash assistance, they may be eligible for reimbursement of medical expenses, a critical source of relief as families facing job losses may be losing employer-sponsored coverage. The Calculator, which was created by the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School, also provides self-help materials and answers to frequently asked questions about Chapter 115.
Veterans and dependents wishing to apply for Chapter 115 benefits should contact their local VSO. Information about how to contact a local VSO is available at https://massvetben.org/find-your-vso/ In addition to assisting with Chapter 115 benefits applications, VSOs can also assist veterans in applying for other state and federal benefits and connecting with important local resources.
“In our work with low-income veterans, we have seen that Chapter 115 benefits have historically been underutilized because too few veterans have heard of the program or know how to access it,” said Betsy Gwin, associate director of the Veterans Legal Clinic at the Legal Services Center. “During this public health and financial crisis, Chapter 115 benefits are poised to be more important than ever before in providing a strong safety net for those who have served in our military and their families who have supported them.”
The Chapter 115 benefits program dates back to the Colonial era, but the benefits are critically important sources of supports for veterans and their families during the COVID19 pandemic. The benefits are administered locally by municipalities’ Veterans’ Service Officers (VSO) and the program is overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Veterans’ Services. The Department has loosened program requirements for the duration of the public health crisis to ensure that potential recipients can easily contact their local VSO to apply for benefits and receive the financial assistance for which they are eligible: https://www.mass.gov/doc/chapter-115-safety-net-program-covid-19
“This is a critical benefit that veterans earn – with their military service comes a guarantee, under state law, that Massachusetts will be there for them in times of need. Veterans need to know that cash assistance is available, and they are not taking these benefits away from anyone else by applying. They also need to know that if they are having difficulty contacting their local VSO or applying for benefits, help is available at no cost from organizations like ours,” said Anna Richardson, co-director of Veterans Legal Services.
Every veteran or dependent has a right to apply for Chapter 115 benefits and to receive a written decision detailing the benefits they are eligible for, or the reasons if they are denied. Veterans are encouraged to report their experience with applying for benefits by completing a brief survey at https://veteranslegalservices.org/chapter115/ so advocates can identify barriers to access, or learn about creative solutions communities are finding to the challenges posed by COVID-19. The form can also be used to request assistance if the local VSO was not accessible, the veteran or family member did not receive a written decision on their application, or with appeals.
“We are pleased to see the Department of Veterans Services has suspended in-person interviews and certain other requirements that are not feasible during the pandemic,” said Richardson. “Now the challenge is getting the word out. If you know someone who is struggling right now that has served in the military or is the family member or surviving spouse of someone who served, please tell them about Chapter 115.”
“Veterans, particularly those with disabilities, deserve our support,” said Disabled American Veterans (DAV) representative Commander Debora Olson. “In times of financial crisis, public assistance through programs like Chapter 115 can help our heroes avoid homelessness, prevent utility shutoff, and cover their medical expenses. These benefits are also available for their widow(er)s. No one should have to choose ‘do I eat in the dark? or the light in the refrigerator is on but it is empty?’ Please if you are in need: #1 don’t be too proud to ask for help. #2 You are not taking anything away from another veteran. You earn the benefits and they are there for you all. #3 Ask what your benefits are, you may be surprised. The DAV is also here to help inform you of benefits you earn while serving our country.”
Veterans Legal Services
Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School