The federal government has acknowledged that it wrongly declared more than 100 veterans dead and suspended their benefit payments, and says it is changing its policy of confirming deaths.
Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Florida, whose district includes most of Pinellas County, brought the issue to the Department of Veterans Affairs' attention in a November letter. In response, the VA acknowledged that it had erroneously stopped benefits to 115 people from July 7, 2014, to April 1, 2015, because officials believed they were dead.
"In the case of one veteran in Dunedin, his word was devastating," Jolly said. "He said he began looking around the house for furniture to sell so that he could have enough funds to provide for his own housing in the coming months."
Mike Rieker, a 69-year-old Vietnam War Navy veteran who was among those wrongly declared dead, said his situation turned serious when he realized he might go weeks or more without a benefits check while the situation was ironed out.
"I spent five minutes arguing on the phone with a lady about me being dead," he said with a wry smile at a news conference Tuesday. Eventually, "I started looking around the house for things to sell," he added.
Now, the department is "updating its process to request further confirmation of the beneficiary's death before it terminates payments," VA spokesman Randal Noller said in a statement to The Associated Press.
When officials think a veteran is dead, the department will send a letter to his or her address and request confirmation of the death from a surviving family member, according to a Dec. 10 letter from the VA to Jolly's office. If the VA doesn't hear from the family — or from a veteran erroneously believed dead — only then will the department terminate payments, according to the letter.
Jolly said that he's grateful the department took action and that VA blamed the problems on computer and human error.
The VA verifies its beneficiaries' entitlement through an automated match with the Social Security Administration's Death Master File, Noller said.
"Although these types of errors are a small percentage, we sincerely regret the inconvenience caused by such errors," Noller said in his statement.
In Rieker's case, under the new rules he would have had a 30-day period to present evidence that he was alive and well, Jolly said.