VA Admits to Wrongly Declaring Over 4,000 Veterans Dead

Thousands of living veterans saw their benefits cut off between 2011 and 2015

Robert McDonald
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald / AP
May 25, 2016

The Department of Veterans Affairs admitted it wrongly declared more than 4,000 veterans dead over the past five years, cutting off benefits for them and their dependents.

The agency disclosed that it wrongly terminated benefits for 4,201 veterans between 2011 and 2015 in a letter to Rep. David Jolly (R., Fla.) this month. The admission came more than six months after Jolly initially requested information on veterans whose VA benefits had been erroneously cut off following a series of mistaken death cases by the VA in the Tampa Bay area.

More than 1,000 veterans had their benefits disrupted in 2015 alone when the VA erroneously declared them deceased.

"During calendar years 2011 through 2015, VA terminated 2,057,790 awards due to the death of the beneficiary. During the same period, VA resumed awards for 4,201 of these beneficiaries after receiving information indicating the beneficiary was not deceased," Danny Pummill, the VA undersecretary for benefits, wrote in the May 6 letter.

Pummill wrote that the agency could not explain why the veterans were declared dead because its computer systems could not pinpoint the errors.

"Although we are able to identify cases where benefits were terminated based on an erroneous notice of a beneficiary’s death and subsequently reinstated, our computer systems do not collect information on the cause of the errors (e.g., VA employee error, erroneous information received through a data-matching program, incorrect identifying data provided by a third party, etc.)," Pummill wrote.

The number of veterans wrongly declared deceased by the VA represents just over 0.2 percent of the total count of VA beneficiaries who had their benefits terminated over the past five years.

"These numbers confirm our suspicion, that mistaken deaths by the VA have been a widespread problem impacting thousands of veterans across the country," Jolly said in a statement Wednesday. "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."

Jolly initially sent a letter to the VA on Nov. 4, 2015 after veterans in Florida reported having their benefits abruptly cut off by the VA when the agency determined they had died. Jolly asked the agency to report the number of instances where VA beneficiaries had their benefits wrongly terminated over the past five years.

Under pressure, the VA said in December that it would first contact veterans or their families when records showed they had died instead of automatically terminating benefits. The agency would then wait 30 days before cutting off benefits.

But Jolly expressed doubt Wednesday that the new policy would be a sufficient remedy to a widespread problem. The lawmaker said he will push the VA to provide data on veterans wrongly declared dead at the end of the current year in order to assess whether the new policy is actually working.

"I’ll be asking the VA for a new report at the end of this year so we can see the numbers from 2016. If the VA’s new policy is indeed working, this problem should be eliminated. If the problem persists, then Congress will demand further action," Jolly stated.

"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," Jolly said. "This creates tremendous financial hardships and undue personal turmoil for veterans, many who are seniors relying primarily if not solely on their VA benefits."

The VA has been under scrutiny for more than two years after veterans were found to have died waiting for care because hospital employees kept secret wait lists to conceal long wait times for appointments. A slew of reports has found persistent issues at the VA’s network of hospital systems. The agency’s benefits administration has also been criticized for not punishing employees for misconduct and failing to eliminate its backlog of claims.

The latest revelation about veterans wrongly declared deceased comes as the agency weathers increased criticism after VA Secretary Robert McDonald likened the waits that veterans face for care to lines at Disney theme parks.