VA moves to fix the problem, but results aren’t clear; veteran proves he’s alive with congressman’s help
Thousands of living veterans had their benefits cut when the Dept. of Veteran Affairs mistakenly declared them dead.
By BEN KESLING
The Wall Street Journal
Updated May 25, 2016 6:22 p.m. ET
The Department of Veterans Affairs has mistakenly declared thousands of veterans to be deceased and canceled their benefits over the past five years, a new snafu to emerge at the embattled department.
The VA has made the error more than 4,000 times over a half-decade because of employee mistakes or erroneous cross-checking of data by the department’s computers, among other reasons, according to correspondence between the VA and the office of U.S. Rep. David Jolly (R., Fla.) reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. The VA changed its procedures to address the issue, but it isn’t yet clear whether the new system is effective.
“Although these types of cases represent a small number of beneficiaries in comparison to the millions of transactions completed each year in our administration of benefits, we sincerely regret the inconvenience caused by such errors and work to restore benefits as quickly as possible after any such error is brought to our attention,” a VA spokesman said in a statement.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald — A great guy who has failed to fix the Veterans Administration
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the latest data represented an increase in the error rate or what prompted the VA to tackle the problem.
For veterans, benefits checks can suddenly stop appearing.
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“Generally, I just don’t think people understand how bad it could be. It could be one day you’ve got a house, and the next you don’t,” said Navy veteran Michael Rieker of Dunedin, Fla., whose benefits were cut off last year. He was able to have the benefits restored initially, but a few months later they again were cut off, and he had to go through the restoration process a second time.
Mr. Rieker, 69 years old, contacted Rep. Jolly, his congressman, and was able to prove to the VA that he was still alive; the agency then resumed his monthly benefits payments.
“Mistaken deaths by the VA have been a widespread problem impacting thousands of veterans across the country,” Mr. Jolly said in a statement.
Every year, about 400,000 veterans or others receiving VA benefits die and their awards are canceled, according to department statistics. Of the roughly two million veterans declared deceased in the past five years, 4,201 cases involved incorrect declarations that the VA eventually corrected before resuming payments to the still-living beneficiary.
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The VA noted that such errors make up less than 1% of all benefits terminations each year and that the accuracy rate of terminations because of death is 99.83%, according to the department’s most recent figures. The department said it doesn’t keep records of the causes of the errors.
In the first instance of Mr. Rieker’s canceled benefits, a VA employee had identified him as Michael G. Rieker—though his middle initial is “C,” according to a department letter sent in December.
The VA’s system automatically cross-checks veterans’ names with the Social Security Administration’s so-called Death Master File. The list apparently contained a Michael G. Rieker.
That system was created, in part, to solve another problem at the department: payments that continue to dead people.
Over the past decade, the VA has used what is called the death match program to prevent people from cashing benefits checks sent to deceased veterans. In 2010, the VA’s inspector general said the program had led to 382 arrests and recovery of $40 million in fraudulent payments.
Under a new system instituted late last year, the VA sends a letter to the beneficiary believed to have died and waits 30 days for a response before terminating the benefits and declaring the person dead. The department said it doesn’t have statistics on whether the new system has reduced such errors.
Difficulty keeping track of veteran deaths poses other problems. In September 2015 the VA’s Office of Inspector General issued a report noting that about 35% of the department’s approximately 870,000 pending applications for enrollment into the VA health-care system as of September 2014 were for people reported as dead by the Social Security Administration.
The report noted that most of the pending records are likely outdated, though the record system makes it unclear. Such a convoluted system helps “create unnecessary difficulty and confusion in identifying and assisting veterans with the most urgent need for health-care enrollment,” the report said.
In March, the enrollment system updated more than 130,000 dates of death in conjunction with Social Security’s official rolls to cut back on pending applications.
Despite being declared dead twice by the VA—the second time was merely because the initial instance hadn’t been fully fixed by the VA—Mr. Rieker had good things to say about the agency.
“Every time I call they have been responsive,” said the veteran who was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam. “Personally I believe they are just inundated; they are so overstacked with things to do, they can’t keep up.”
The former boat crewman became well-known locally for a few days, thanks to television and newspaper coverage the first time around.
“I walked into the sandwich shop, and they were like, ‘Hey, it’s the dead guy!’” Mr. Rieker said.
Write to Ben Kesling at firstname.lastname@example.org
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