Uncle Sam is generally so considerate of veterans – but not when he declares the alive to be dead.
That was the case with Joseph D. Kane Jr., an Air Force vet in St. Petersburg, Fla.
A 2014 letter from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service to his 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 Department of Veterans Affairs said “benefits were terminated based on an erroneous notice of a beneficiary’s death” in 4,201 cases from 2011 through 2015 in a letter this month to Rep. David W. Jolly (R-Fla.) “Our computer systems do not collect information on the cause of the errors.”
This news is the second blow to the VA this week and comes just days before Memorial Day, when those who have died in service to the country are honored. On Monday, VA Secretary Robert McDonald took political heat from Republicans for comparing lines at Disney amusement parks to wait times for VA health care. That has been a major scandal for the agency.
Danny G.I. Pummill, acting VA benefits undersecretary, tried to put the mistaken deaths in context by noting in the letter that the department’s accuracy rate for benefit terminations due to death is 99.8 percent.
That’s great, except when the department is dead wrong.
“The situation is very serious” for the individuals involved, Jolly said in an interview. Some veterans live check to check and missing one can place them in financial peril.
A VA statement said it “we sincerely regret the inconvenience caused by such errors.”
Noting that VA figures show a steady increase since 2012 in the number of people whose VA benefits were mistakenly terminated, Jolly said “clearly it’s a growing problem. It’s not an insignificant number.” He praised VA officials for taking steps to correct the situation.
Jolly, who worked with the government on Kane’s case and others, said “the VA often relied on data from the Social Security Administration (SSA). If SSA has determined somebody dead, the VA then terminates benefits.”
That points a much larger problem at Social Security, which deals with a much larger population than the VA.
It makes about 9,000 erroneous reports of death each year. As weird as that is for those families, that number is less than 1 percent of the 2.8 million death reports Social Security records annually, according to William “BJ” Jarrett, a SSA spokesman.
When Social Security shares death information with other agencies it includes a disclaimer telling officials to make sure the death data are not defective. “We instruct agencies that receive our death information to verify it before using it,” Jarrett said.
The VA and the Air Force apparently didn’t do that in Kane’s case. 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.”
With the changes the VA has implemented, Jolly hopes others won’t have to share Kane’s near death experience. Under new procedures, the VA will send a letter to the beneficiary’s address to “request confirmation of the beneficiary’s death from a survivor or request that the beneficiary contact VA to resume payments,” Pummill said in an earlier letter to Jolly. VA will terminate the payments in 30 days if it doesn’t get information that the beneficiary is alive.
“I give credit to the VA for coming up with a new policy,” Jolly said.
He wants the agency to do an annual survey to make sure that policy is working.
Jolly said: “We simply cannot have men and women who have sacrificed for this country, see their rightful benefits wrongfully terminated because the VA mistakenly declares them dead.”