Why does Florida VA office keep listing living veterans as deceased?

A Vietnam vet from Florida called to inquire about a late disability payment and was told he was categorized as deceased. The case of mistaken identity was one among many in the Tampa Bay area.

Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/AP
US Department of Veterans Affairs Sec. Robert McDonald (second from r.) stands with Sen. John Cornyn (r.), and retired Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (l.) as they look at a bronze statue of a soldier throwing a grenade, Sept. 14, 2015 at the Veterans War Memorial of Texas in McAllen, Texas.

A Vietnam veteran had his benefits suspended this month when a federal agency mistakenly categorized him as dead.

Mike Rieker called the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) office in the Tampa Bay area this week when a disability check was not deposited into his bank account as expected.

The department told him an Arizona veteran with nearly the same name had died five months earlier, causing the confusion, ABC News reported. 

Mr. Rieker has struggled with numerous health conditions since serving in Vietnam, making the $3,000 he receives in VA disability benefits vital.

This is at least the sixth time a Tampa Bay-area veteran was falsely declared dead and had benefits suspended since 2014, said Rep. David Jolly (R) of Florida, who questioned whether the issue was secluded to his Gulf Coast district or more widespread.

“It’s a very serious matter,” said Representative Jolly, who contacted Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert A. McDonald to initiate an investigation.

Jolly has written the secretary over the same issue twice this year. Jolly’s spokesperson described an elderly widow in his district, Mary Ann Clough, who went two months without benefits last year before she received $6,000 in back spousal benefits.

Ms. Clough said the VA had sent a letter to her family offering condolences for her death. And when she went to the bank to check on deposits of her benefit check was missing, she told the AP.

“The bank told me, ‘no you’re deceased,' ” Clough recalled.

The Veterans Benefits Administration has been heavily criticized for its treatment of veterans in recent years, as it contends with tens of thousands of wounded military personnel from two extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Veterans Benefits Administration gives out nearly $100 billion in disability, pension, and other benefits to Americans each year, CBS News reported.

The revelations in the Tampa Bay area add to a long list of complaints against the VA, an agency still recovering from a scandal at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care system, where reports that 40 veterans died while awaiting help prompted the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

President Obama had pledged to overhaul the agency and cited gains made since the Arizona scandal during an interview in July but said the real problem is the lack of bipartisan support and funding.

“When you look at the budget, historically it’s been shortchanged,” Mr. Obama was quoted as saying in The Washington Post. “We’ve been able to systematically add additional revenue but you still have this massive structure with millions of people being served.”

This report includes material from The Associated Press.

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