A Maui widow’s plight highlights a computer error that wrongfully denied certain benefits.
December 20, 2008 – The Department of Veterans Affairs will begin issuing retroactive payments this month to eligible surviving spouses of war veterans who have been wrongfully denied up to millions of dollars in government benefits over the past 12 years.
The problem was pointed out to VA director James Peake last week by Sen. Daniel Akaka, chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, after the Hawaii Democrat received a complaint from Ruby Sasaoka of Kula, Maui, who was told by the VA that she wasn’t entitled to her husband’s last pension and disability check of $2,669.
Her husband, Raymond Sasaoka, died last December and she had used his last VA check to pay for funeral expenses. He had served in the Korean War as an Army corporal and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and hearing loss.
In January, the VA told Ruby Sasaoka to return the money and nine months later the U.S. Treasury took the money out of her checking account.
However, Congress passed a law in 1996 giving veterans’ spouses the right to keep their spouses’ final month of benefits.
But the VA never updated its automated computer systems, which sends out checks and notification letters. As a result, spouses were either denied the final month of payment or asked to send the checks back. If the checks were already deposited or spent, the U.S. Treasury moved to seize the money directly from their accounts.
“This flawed practice has caused serious hardship for many widows,” Akaka said last week. “Now that this problem has been brought to light, I trust that surviving spouses will receive the benefits they are due.”
Based on Akaka’s inquiry, Peake established a special task force to identify and pay the beneficiaries who never received the benefit or were inadvertently required to repay the money issued for the month of a veteran’s death.
The task force is reviewing VA’s payment records for veterans who died after Dec. 31, 1996, and who are survived by a spouse. The review will identify those to whom VA owes retroactive benefits for the month of the veteran’s death.
Because there are deceased veterans for whom VA does not have marital status information, a special Survivors’ Call Center has been established for spouses who believe they may be entitled to this retroactive month-of-death benefit.
Surviving spouses are encouraged to contact the Survivors’ Call Center at (800) 749-8387, Mondays through Fridays. Inquiries may also be submitted through online at www.vba.va.gov/survivorsbenefit.htm.
Akaka’s committee estimates that 50,000 surviving spouses each year since 1996 could be affected, based on VA numbers. Out of that 50,000, some spouses might have received the payments they were due if they called the VA at the time to inquire about their rights.