First Look

Can the VA resolve its problem of mistakenly declaring vets deceased?

Figures show that over the past five years, more than 4,000 American veterans have been wrongfully declared dead, resulting in their benefits being cut off. 

The US Department of Veterans Affairs is beset by yet another problem, it emerged Wednesday, having wrongfully declared thousands of veterans dead over the past few years, resulting in their benefits being cut off.

The systemic error has affected more than 4,000 veterans, according to correspondence between the VA and the office of Rep. David Jolly (R) of Florida, and although the department points out that this represents only a tiny proportion of their clients, it concedes that for those impacted, the experience can be traumatic.

The VA is a gargantuan department, facing myriad challenges, and while it has taken steps to address this particular issue, it remains unclear how successful those efforts will be.

"These numbers confirm our suspicion, that mistaken deaths by the VA have been a widespread problem impacting thousands of veterans across the country," said Representative Jolly in a statement. “It’s a problem that should have been addressed years ago, as it has caused needless hardships for thousands of people who had their benefits terminated and their world turned upside down."

The figures, which show 1,025 individuals incorrectly declared dead in 2015 alone, were revealed when Jolly requested a report from the VA covering the five most recent years, following a string of such incidents in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area.

About two million veterans were declared dead during that period, reported the Wall Street Journal, of which 4,201 cases were identified as being incorrect declarations, with payments eventually being resumed once proof of life was provided.

Late last year, in an effort to address the problem, the VA instituted a new protocol, whereby a letter would be sent to the person deemed deceased, giving them 30 days to respond and alert the department that, in fact, they were still alive. There are currently no statistics available to measure the success of that system.

"I was really shocked," former US Air Force Master Sgt. Joseph Kane told the Tampa Bay Times, having received a letter in 2014 informing him he was officially dead. "I felt like I had been resurrected."

After heading to his local VA office to contest the letter’s assertion, he filled out a "statement in support of claim," which included the comment by a VA official: "Vet came in person to Room 222 to verify that he is not deceased and would like to have his benefits reinstated soon as possible."

One of the checks that the VA carries out is to cross-reference veterans’ names with a so-called death master file at the Social Security Administration, and this was itself put in place to tackle another prevalent challenge facing the department: the continued payment of benefits when a person has actually passed on.

In 2010 alone, these checks resulted in 382 arrests and $40 million worth of recovery in fraudulent payments, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The VA is a massive management challenge,” reported David Cook of The Christian Science Monitor. “It runs the largest integrated health care system in the US. It operates 1,200 health care facilities, has 350,000 employees, including 25,000 physicians who serve nine million patients. If it were a business weighed in the Fortune 500 rankings, McDonald [VA secretary] said, it would rank sixth.”

In such a lumbering institution, changes are complex to implement. As the VA seeks to address the problem of wrongfully declaring its veterans deceased, only time will give us a measure of its success.

 
 
 

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