COVID-19 affects benefits and mental health of veterans

University of Iowa and Iowa City veterans face potential restrictions on their benefits and an increase in mental-health disorders as self-isolation restrictions continue.



Rachel Schilke, News Reporter

Jessica Cupps, the University of Iowa Veterans Association president, is still awaiting a full monthly housing stipend guaranteed by the GI Rights Bill since her in-person classes have moved online.

Under the GI Bill, student veterans who take online classes typically receive much less in a housing stipend than veterans who take classes in person — sometimes less than half. In March, Congress passed updates to the GI bill to continue those in-person course benefits. After the UI canceled all in-person classes, Cupps said veterans were unsure if their benefits would cover any online classes after the 2020 spring semester. It was unclear as to whether the education benefits of veterans would remain if the university continues online classes in the fall, she added.

“Our treasurer, Paul Richards, was able to secure education benefits to cover online classes for the 2020 spring semester,” Cupps said. “But, a lot of it now is just waiting. There is not much we are able to do. We can say things, but this is nationwide, right now. It is not just us [in Iowa City]. All over the country, veterans are waiting to find out what the GI bill will or will not cover.”

Veterans who take classes online full time typically receive a decreased housing allowance of $750 from the normal $1584, said Cupps, who is an U.S. Air Force veteran with a young child.

“That $750 barely covers my rent,” Cupps said. “How can I raise my kid? How can I pay my bills while also trying to be in school? Should I drop out and get a job? For some, schooling is covered, but for others, that $750 is what they live off of. And now it’s up in the air if they will even get that.”

Like Cupps, Veterans at the University of Iowa and across the Iowa City area are facing uncertainty surrounding the status of their benefits as the COVID-19 pandemic transitions classes online and limits in-person access to education, housing, and counseling.

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The UI Veterans Association and the Johnson County Veterans Services Office are working to connect veterans with telehealth opportunities at the Veterans Affairs Hospital and disability and housing benefits — however, both are at a standstill as the government debates coverage of veterans within the CARES Act.

Cupps said the majority of her job is to be the spokesperson and advocate for the needs of veterans across the UI campus. In fall 2019, 613 student veterans enrolled at the University of Iowa.

She said she helps recently discharged or temporarily inactive duty veterans secure their housing benefits, the Veterans Affairs disability claim, and other guarantees under the GI Bill of Rights.

With the guard bases near Iowa City, Cupps said, many active veterans of the military are receiving orders to assist the communities at the expense of attempting to earn their degrees.

“[Veterans] are working 60 hours a week, while also trying to complete 12 to 18 credit hours and study,” Cupps said. “They are having to serve their country for something that they were not prepared for.”

While she gets money from the GI bill and disability benefits, Cupp said the GI bill is the determining factor for a lot of veterans in whether or not they can pursue an education. Worst-case scenario, she said many veterans will have to suspend their education and enter the workforce.

Cupps said she estimates UI will lose as many as a couple hundred veterans, just based on the number of individuals who have discussed their situations with her. She is concerned for the veterans who will drop out of school and remain isolated in their homes, Cupps said, as mental health can decrease quickly among recently discharged veterans.

“You go from a place where you know what you are doing and what you have to do,” she said, “…to a place where you have no idea what is going on. People coming back from active duty in the spring, they are now stuck in their homes with no in-person social interaction.”

Johnson County Veterans Service Office Director Gary Boseneiler said his office has been working hard to connect veterans to the benefits they are still eligible for. Although he misses one-on-one meetings, Boseneiler said he is glad he can still help veterans sign up for health care at the Veterans Affairs Hospital and for disability benefits.

He has not seen a decrease in benefits for the veterans that come through his office, and has been communicating through email, mail, and even curbside drop-offs, Boseneiler said.

“Some of my veterans are from a previous generation, so communicating through the mail is not exactly new to them,” Boseneiler said. “I still pre-pay and pre-stamp the envelopes to make things easier.”

Boseneiler said the hardest part currently is to navigate the unknown. The Veterans Affairs Hospital, like many health-care providers, are utilizing telehealth visitations and appointments to connect veterans with the care they need, he said.

“For many veterans, the Veterans Affairs Hospital is the only place that they can get health care,” he said. “Telehealth is new to us all, but once set up, it is a very efficient way to communicate. This might be the new way of doing things, from now on.”

Iowa City Veterans Affairs Hospital Public Affairs Officer Bryan Clark said that telehealth has been an asset during COVID-19, as it allows veterans to keep in contact with their providers and know that care is still accessible to them.

Clark said that electronic programs such as Vet Text and My HealtheVet, which were in place before the pandemic began, are easy ways for veterans to manage appointments and send secure messages to their medical team if they are experiencing issues. Veterans can be supplied with iPads if they do not have one to easily access their online appointments, he added.

Telehealth for the hospital’s mental-health program has been a key component of maintaining care for veterans, Clark said, and the suicide-prevention team has continued to promote the veterans crisis line, which is available for all types of situations, including suicide.

“When [veterans] are suffering from acute mental-health disorders, such as depression or PTSD, isolation can magnify those,” he said. “We found touching base with veterans who are isolated was necessary. If you are a community member and know a veteran, reach out to them and check in. Everyone can have issues with mental health, but veterans have unique issues. Staying in touch is key.”

Clark added that the suicide-prevention team is sending out postcards to veterans in nursing homes so that they can know people are out there to support them.

Boseneiler said he had a moment of positivity despite the pandemic when he recently helped someone secure a headstone and arrange a funeral for his uncle that was buried at sea in World War II. Veterans who were killed in action and buried at sea do not usually receive a headstone or funeral back home, Boseneiler said.

Boseneiler said he was able to obtain all of the paperwork and information from the WWII veteran, and arrange for a headstone and funeral with full honors and a color guard presentation.

“That’s what happens when a veteran’s family pursues something they really want,” he said. “When veterans and their families have a hard time, they reach out to us. It was pretty cool to be able to work on this with them.”

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