Debera Fathke said an adviser at the Standiford Place retirement center in Modesto helped obtain veterans benefits for residents, including her mother, who was granted $1,100 a month in 2011 to supplement her retirement income.
Fay Fernandez, 81, was eligible because her late husband served in the Navy in the Korean War.
Fernandez lived in a pricey apartment at Standiford Place and eventually was spending all but $130 of her monthly retirement income for rent, Fathke said. They were unclear about the purpose of the “aid and attendance” benefit, but learned much later that it could not be used for rent on the independent-living apartments at Standiford Place on Shawnee Drive.
The benefit is for home care or assisted living.
Now, the Department of Veterans Affairs wants Fernandez to repay $47,000 to the government. “The VA said this is not a care facility and you are not getting care, so we are taking your benefit away from you,” Fathke said, referring to the letter received in November. The federal government could take 15 percent of her Social Security to start recovering the amount.
Fathke said the adviser had an office at Standiford Place where he helped residents apply for veterans benefits, so she trusted his advice. According to Fathke, the man advised her to serve as caregiver for her mother, who would pay her $200 a month. When she was required to account for spending the benefits, the VA noted the “aid and attendance” benefit was not spent on a licensed caregiver or assisted living.
The VA does not recognize Fathke’s care for her mother because she is not a state-licensed caregiver.
Fernandez is the second resident to complain that Standiford Place misled them about veterans benefits. Kim Lingenfelter of San Jose said last month that a former manager persuaded her mother to move in last June and use a loan to pay monthly rent while applying for spousal survivor benefits. When the benefits were received in December, the payment did not cover the loan amount for three months’ rent. The payment was $4,900 short of what had been promised to pay off the loan, Lingenfelter said.
She added that a Tennessee legal service charged them $700 for assistance with getting the benefits, despite a federal law that prohibits charging fees for helping veterans obtain benefits. Lingenfelter said the former manager told her the Nashville firm regularly worked with Standiford Place.
A receptionist said the attorney who runs the Nashville firm, the Center for Elder Veterans Rights, would not comment.
Brian Fawkes, a spokesman for Holiday Retirement, the company that owns Standiford Place and more than 300 retirement homes in the U.S., said Tuesday that he was not aware of the adviser who assisted Fernandez in 2011 or his role with Standiford Place. “I can reiterate that Holiday is not involved in any veterans benefit programs. We will look into the matter to see what we can do,” Fawkes said.
Fathke and her mother are seeking assistance from the office of U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, in hope the VA might waive the repayment demand.
Joyce Gandelman, executive director of the nonprofit Senior Law Project in Stanislaus County, advises eligible seniors to apply for benefits through the county veterans services office. That way, they fully understand the guidelines for the benefits.
“I think what happens is people don’t know about the veterans benefits such as ‘aid and attendance’ and they are not told about the limitations of the benefits,” Gandelman said. “They are not told it’s for care, to help with cooking and bathing. It appears from stories I have heard that people thought it was a rent subsidy.”
Fathke said another relative, who had lived at a different retirement center in Modesto, received a VA letter stating that she was overpaid $13,000 in benefits.
Jim Greer, county veterans services officer, said the county office on Downey Avenue has had fairly good success getting waivers for veterans based on financial hardship if the office acts within 30 days of the VA issuing an overpayment letter. The county office puts a hold on the federal process before it goes to collections. The issue is far more difficult to resolve if it goes beyond 30 days, Greer said.
Greer added that he wanted to see if the original application forms for Fernandez wrongfully sought benefits for assisted living at Standiford Place. Holiday’s website lists only one assisted-living facility in the state, in Southern California.
Fernandez has paid $2,847 a month for a one-bedroom apartment at Standiford Place, which includes daily meals and light housekeeping. She soon will move into an apartment at Casa de Modesto with similar services. It will cost about $1,500 a month less, Fathke said.
In September 2013, Holiday Retirement agreed to pay restitution in Oregon to veterans who complained they were coaxed by the company’s aggressive marketing and benefit promises to move into high-cost senior housing. When they were later denied benefits, Holiday was accused of employing aggressive tactics to collect deferred rent.
In the settlement with the Oregon Department of Justice, Holiday agreed to pay from $750 to more than $3,500 to each victim.