ST. PETERSBURG — More than 4,200 military veterans, including several in the Tampa Bay region, lost their benefits after they were wrongly declared dead by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
The agency acknowledged bungling the cases of thousands of veterans between 2011 and 2015 in a letter sent earlier this month to U.S. Rep. David Jolly, R-Indian Shores. The largest number of errors occurred in 2015, when the VA prematurely declared 1,025 veterans dead and terminated their benefits before having to reinstate them, the letter says.
Jolly formally requested a report on the problem at congressional hearings after hearing from a number of Tampa Bay veterans whose benefits were wrongly stopped. The numbers in the letter confirmed Jolly's belief that this was no occasional paperwork mix up but a systematic failure resulting in hardship for many veterans, he said.
A letter informing former U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Joseph Kane that he was officially dead arrived at his St. Petersburg home in May 2014. It was opened by his wife, Shirley Kane.
"I was really shocked," said Kane, 79. "I felt like I had been resurrected."
The letter read, "To whom it may concern: We are sorry to learn about the death of JOSEPH KANE," before explaining that a surviving spouse may be eligible for one month more in benefits along with help with the cost of a funeral.
Kane went to a local VA office in Pinellas County and told the staff he was definitely not dead. He filled out a "Statement in Support of Claim" form.
"Vet came in person to Room 222 to verify that he is not deceased and would like to have his benefits reinstated soon as possible," a VA official wrote on the form.
But that did not stop the Air Force from withdrawing about $3,000 from his checking account a month later, roughly equivalent to two months of his military pension.
It wasn't until Jolly got involved in his case that Kane was reimbursed and his VA benefit payments restored.
"It's clear the system has failed and it's clear the government last year failed over 1,000 people," Jolly said. "It is in some way shocking and it's unfortunate. In some cases, their sole economic means were cut off."
The admission by the VA is another black eye for the agency, which in recent months has been pilloried for long wait times veterans must endure before receiving medical treatment at its hospitals and clinics.
In the letter sent to Jolly, Danny G.I. Pummill, the acting under secretary of Veterans Affairs for benefits, said the mistake occurred in only a tiny percentage of the more than 2 million veteran deaths that officials processed during the five-year period involved.
The department's accuracy rate in determining which veterans have died was 99.8 percent, Pummill wrote.
In a statement Wednesday, the VA said it regrets the inconvenience caused by such errors and works quickly to restore benefits.
The VA gets notifications of deaths by matching its records with the Social Security Administration's Death Master File. In his letter to Jolly, Pummill said it is unclear whether the mistakes were the result of human error, incorrect information received through a data-matching program, or incorrect identification data provided by a third party.
In December, Pummill told Jolly the VA will add a safeguard — writing to the beneficiary of a veteran's estate to request confirmation of the death, which would give the veteran a chance to request resumption of benefits. The process allows up to 30 days to respond before payments are terminated.
"While VA has not been fully able to eliminate human error from its processes, we are working diligently to minimize these types of errors," Pummill wrote.
Jolly said there may be more veterans wrongly declared dead and denied benefits who do not where to go for help. He has requested that the agency produce an annual report to see if the new policy is working.
He is also planning to look into whether recipients of social security also are being mistakenly classified as dead and denied payments.
"If these flaws exist currently as the VA suggested, the Social Security Administration shares culpability," he said.
Mary Ann Clough of Clearwater received a VA letter in November 2014 offering condolences to her estate for her death Aug. 28 of that year.
The letter said the $1,233 checks she received monthly for her second husband's military service had been stopped. Her status as officially dead wasn't limited to the VA.
"They stopped everything; they even stopped my Medicare," said Clough, who also turned to Jolly for help.
Rick Weidman, executive director of Vietnam Veterans of America, said many veterans have no savings or other way to support themselves if their benefits are stopped. Weidman would like to see the VA introduce more safeguards to head off the mistakes.
"It's not a huge problem numbers wise but it's a big problem for those who are affected," Weidman said. "In many cases, it's their only income."
Jolly is in the midst of a hotly contested Republican primary campaign for U.S Senate.
He said the issue with veterans' benefits should not be made political. But highlighting government incompetence that causes hardship for those who served their country is likely to play well with Florida's Republican base at a time when distrust of government is already running high.
A former Washington lobbyist, Jolly took over the seat in a 2014 special election following the death of longtime U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, who made support of the military and veterans a priority during his 53 years in public office.
Jolly, who served as an aide and general counsel to Young, said it is also a personal issue for him, in part because of the high number of veterans who live in Pinellas County.
"One of the reasons we have brought this to light is in the hope that people read this who have experienced a problem," Jolly said. "They now know there is an opportunity for redress."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at (813) 226 3446. Follow @codonnell_times