On Memorial Day, we remember the many men and women who lost their lives while in defense of our freedoms and security.
For those servicemen and women who come home, the challenges can be daunting. Almost nothing is more daunting than when the federal government declares that you are dead, when in fact you’re very much alive. You lose your benefits, you may lose your housing, and you face an uphill battle trying to prove to nameless and faceless government bureaucrats that you have a pulse.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) admitted that notices of terminated benefits were sent to about 4,200 veterans from 2011 to 2015. These were mistakes though. The beneficiaries were alive, and then had to prove that to the government.
A letter from the Acting Under Secretary of Veterans Affairs for Benefits Danny G.I. Pummill to a member of Congress lays out the breadth of the problem:
Although we are able to identify cases where benefits were terminated based on an erroneous notice of a beneficiary’s death and subsequently reinstated, our computer systems do not collect information on the cause of the errors VA employee error, erroneous information received through a data-matching program, incorrect identifying data provided by a third party, etc.). During calendar years 2011 through 2015, VA terminated 2,057,790 awards due to the death of the beneficiary. During the same time period, VA resumed awards for 4,201 of these beneficiaries after receiving information indicating the beneficiary was not deceased. The accuracy of award terminations due to death was 99.8 percent.
While the award terminations have declined over the past few years, the number of mistaken death terminations increased rising from 654 in 2013 to 820 in 2014 to 1,025 in 2015.
The VA claims that they are not at fault, but they point to the Department of Social Security (SS). Social Security sends the VA and other federal agencies a list of deceased Americans, which those agencies work from to terminate benefits. Apparently, SS sends out 9,000 erroneous death reports annually which is less than 1 percent of the 2.8 million death reports SS records.
Social Security isn’t willing to take all of the blame though. They point to the disclaimer in their letters instructing agencies which receive death reports to check out the information before using it. The VA up until now failed to verify the information. However, under new procedures, the VA will send a letter to the beneficiary’s address requesting that a survivor confirm the veteran’s death or the veteran request that the VA resume payments.
At least the VA instituted this new policy in time to save another thousand veterans the pain of lost benefits. For one Air Force veteran, the VA took a special interest in his case and used it to highlight their efforts to fix their mistake. The Washington Post reports:
A 2014 letter from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to [Joseph D. Kane Jr.]’s wife said the agency was “sincerely sorry to learn of the death of your husband. We would like to extend our sympathy to you.”
So caring, so understanding. So wrong.
“I think I’ve been resurrected,” Kane, 79, said by telephone.
This isn’t the only time the government has prematurely declared someone dead.
… The retired master sergeant said officials instructed his bank to return $3,000 in retirement pay that had been deposited in his account.
Jolly went to work on that. “He got my money back in 12 days,” Kane said. “I thought that was decent. His influence probably put in on the top of the pile.”
It probably helped this vet that his Congressman stepped in when he learned what the VA had done to him, but how many veterans know or can get their representatives involved? It shouldn’t have taken congressional action for the VA to institute an extra measure to ensure that innocent veterans don’t fall victim to big government errors.
This is just another example of the VA’s bumbling efforts to take care of our men and women. Just last week, the VA’s Secretary Bob McDonald dismissed long wait times for veterans to get medical appointments as akin to waiting in line for rides at Disney World or Disney Land. When will they ever get it right?