INDIANAPOLIS — WRTV Investigates is digging into whether a program meant to help veterans in need is really working.
A new law, Senate Enrolled Act 316, took effect July 1 which allows the state to use up to 10% of military license plate revenue for marketing and promotion of the Military Family Relief Fund.
The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs (IDVA) wants to help more military families with up to $2,500 for food, housing, transportation, utilities and medical expenses.
Sandra Smith of Fishers lost her husband Keith, an Army veteran, to pancreatic cancer last year.
"It's been a struggle when he passed away,” said Sandra. “He helped me a lot. I just got on disability, and we were struggling."
Sandra’s sister told her about the state’s Military Family Relief Fund.
Sandra applied and received $1,226, which went toward her rent and electric bill.
“It helped me so much that month,” said Sandra. “I didn't know what to do because I have medicines I have to pay for."
The Indiana Department of Veterans Affairs launched a new promotional campaign in October using radio ads in all 92 counties, as well as digital and social media ads.
IDVA director Dennis Wimer says the campaign is working.
WRTV Investigates asked the agency for numbers to back it up.
Since the promotional campaign launched October 4, applications increased 20% and traffic to the Military Family Relief Fund’s website is up 27%.
“In the end, that's what we're trying to do is get more veterans to be aware that this fund exists and get more money for those veterans in need,” said Wimer. “We are very excited about the growth we've seen."
The law gets rid of restrictions that previously meant IDVA had to deny 75% of applications for assistance.
Veteran applicants no longer have to prove their hardship is a result of their military service. The state also removed the requirement that you had to have served during wartime and the requirement that you have to serve on active duty for a year to get MFRF benefits.
In the four months following the changes, (July 2021 – Oct 2021), the number of applicants has grown to 81 per month (a 170% increase) and $39,000 has been granted per month (a 118% increase).
When compared to the same time in 2020, IDVA has seen a 53% increase in the number of applicants per month and a 76% increase in dollars delivered per month.
Wimer says the state can help even more veterans—it brings in $2 million a year from military license plate revenue, plus it’s sitting on a $10 million fund it can also dip into.
"You don't want to do everything at once, because all of a sudden you break the bank,” said Wimer. “By giving out more money, we are cutting into that $2 million a year but we are not at the point where we are giving out $4 million a year to be able to start cutting into the $10 million bigger bucket. That's what at some point I want to start working through. "
In 2018 under previous IDVA leadership, WRTV Investigates uncovered IDVA gave out Military Family Relief Fund benefits beyond the $2,500 limit including to IDVA’s own employees.
IDVA workers must now go before the state’s veterans commission if they want assistance, but that has yet to happen.
“In the three years, we haven’t had anybody make a request,” said Wimer.
If a veteran wants more than the $2,500 limit, they also have to go before the commission.
“I would say 5-10% of total applications hit that bucket but each one gets reviewed individually,” said Wimer.
In July 2021, the IDVA team contacted every MFRF applicant who was previously denied to inform them about the changes and encourage them to reapply.
These communications resulted in more than $20,000 being delivered to those veterans in need, according to the agency.
IDVA also developed and launched a web application for the MFRF at the end of June 2021.
Sandra Smith is grateful for the Military Family Relief Fund, and she hopes others hear about it.
“Go put your application in and they will help you,” said Sandra. “You should do it."
Some veterans have criticized the legislation because they said the state should use its own budget, not license plate revenue, to promote the Military Family Relief Fund.