WASHINGTON — Surviving spouses of war veterans have been wrongfully denied government benefits over the past 12 years due to computer glitches that often resulted in money being seized from the elderly survivors' bank accounts.
The Veterans Affairs Department said Saturday it wasn't fully aware of the problem. It pledged to work quickly to give back the pension and disability checks — ranging from $100 to more than $2,500 — that hundreds of thousands of widows should have received during the month of their spouse's death.
"This problem must be fixed," said VA Secretary James Peake. The department indicated in an "action plan" that millions of dollars in back payments could be given to widows sometime after February, once it can identify them.
Congress passed a law in 1996 giving veterans' spouses the right to keep their partners' final month of benefits. It instructed the VA to make changes as needed to comply with the law, which took effect for spouses of veterans who died after Dec. 31, 1996.
But the VA never updated its automated computer systems, which send out checks and notification letters. As a result, spouses were either denied the final month of payment or asked to send the checks back. In many cases, if the checks were already deposited or spent, the U.S. Treasury moved to seize the money directly from the spouse's account.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, confronted Peake about the problem last week after receiving a complaint from a widow. In response, Peake instructed the Veterans Benefits Administration to update its systems as quickly as possible.
"This flawed practice has caused serious hardship for many widows," Akaka said Saturday.
The VA has yet to identify the exact number of widows affected, but acknowledged that it could be "sizable." Akaka's committee estimates that 50,000 widows each year since 1996 could be affected.