For decades, many veterans serving in the military have been entitled to medical benefits once they retire — a reward for their sacrifice and dedication to the nation.
But a CBS13 Call Kurtis investigation is uncovering the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has accidentally killed off hundreds of veterans, cutting off benefits and health care service at veteran hospitals, according to Veterans Affairs.
Now Veterans Affairs has enacted changes to its federal database requiring veteran identification numbers be cross-referenced with veterans’ complete names before any deletion can take place — a change coming after CBS13’s investigation began.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, CBS13 requested federal documents indicating exactly how many veterans had been deleted from the system, severing their benefits and triggering notification letters to the families of the veterans.
Update: As of Oct. 25, 2012, the Veterans Affairs still has not released the information requested, nor provided any reason for the delay.
“I was like, ‘What? Is this saying I’m dead?'” recalled veteran Kate Owens, who served in the Army for 26 years.
Owens discovered her VA account had been deleted April 26 — when a letter addressed to her husband announced she had died.
“I had to refocus,” she said.
Flipping through her scrapbook — a quarter century of memories from her military career — Owens worried the monthly benefits she receives as a disabled veteran will stop, wreaking havoc on her family’s finances.
“We won’t be able to make out mortgage,” said the mother of four.
After two trips to VA offices and calls to the VA reporting the mistake, Owens was concerned her normally covered prescriptions would run out before her account could be reinstated, she said.
The national office told her she’d need to submit documents proving she wasn’t dead, she said.
“If we don’t get this resolved by the end of this month, we’ll be in a world of hurt,” she said.
CBS13 found other accounts of mistakenly “killed off” veterans as well — like Army veteran Jerry Miller in Palm Bay, Florida. Miller said the same mistake had happened to him four times since 2010.
After a month and a half of Veterans Affairs arranging an on-camera interview, the agency finally refused — an order from the top of the department, according to the VA’s Dave Bayard.
But the department admitted the VA has mistakenly declared “hundreds” of others dead, according to the department’s Douglas Bragg.
“You don’t cut off someone’s benefits because you think they’re dead without checking to make sure in fact they’re dead,” said veteran advocate Pete Conaty.
Conaty said he hears of cases like this every week in California.
“It seems to me this would be an easy one to fix,” he said.
The VA reports about 642,000 veterans die each year, and wouldn’t tell CBS13 how long the “mistyping” mistakes had been going on, but indicated the department had known of the issue for some time.
“I was there for my country and I think my country should be here for me,” Owens said.
The federal agency eventually blamed Owens’ issue on a clerical error saying the number entered into its database “didn’t match the name of the person who actually died.”
Starting in summer 2012, Bragg said the VA had changed its national policy to require its workers match names and ID numbers of before declaring anyone dead. Bragg said this will prevent the errors in the future.
The VA fixed Owens’ issue five days after her account had been close, with a call from CBS13 in between.
Owens, as well as Miller, are glad their accounts have been brough back to life — their benefits restored.
“I love the VA, I just don’t like what happened to me,” she said.