GULFPORT – The Department of Veterans Affairs enacted a new policy for confirming a veteran has actually died after realizing it wrongly stopped benefits for more than 100 veterans.
Two of those people sought help from the Veterans Advocacy Clinic at Stetson University’s College of Law, Stacey-Rae Simcox, a law professor and director of the clinic, told the Florida Record. The clinic represents Tampa Bay area veterans appealing decisions denying VA disability benefits.
In one case, a veteran had spent months trying to prove he was still alive.
“That veteran was near bankruptcy,” Simcox said.
U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a Florida Republican who helped Simcox and others, raised the issue with the VA in November. The VA responded by acknowledging it made a mistake in stopping benefits for 115 people between July 2014 and April 2015. It announced a new policy in December.
Now, when the VA believes someone has died, it will send a letter to the address of the veteran and wait 30 days for confirmation from a family member. The VA will only halt benefits if it doesn’t hear back from the family – or the veteran, in the event the VA is wrong.
The VA offers myriad benefits to veterans, including loans, education, pension, health and disability.
For the veteran, Simcox stepped in and made a phone call to straighten out the problem. To her, this reveals one of the problems. When veterans call, they get a representative who can only see what’s on the computer, which is often not very helpful, especially if the computer says the veteran is dead.
Because the VA is already prone to slowness, with cases and people often falling through the cracks, she hopes officials will designate a person to receive and act on confirmations. In her experience, it can take months for the government to acknowledge a veteran sent something.
“I like the changes they said they’re going to make. I’d really like to know who that letter’s going to,” she said. “If (veterans) just send it into the black hole of the VA, I don’t think there are any guarantees that anyone will get to that letter and act on that in a timely fashion.”
Mistakes over benefits happen frequently and have been the subject of conversations for a long time. Still, Simcox appreciates the effort the VA is making to improve, including by setting this policy.
“They’re trying. They’re doing a lot of work with few people,” she said.
She started advocating for veterans after she and her husband, both former judge advocate general attorneys in the Army, couldn’t get through the process of applying for benefits from the VA.
“Most people are shocked when you say two lawyers can’t do that,” she said. “It’s difficult! It’s not an easy system to make it through.”
They went on to start the nationally recognized Lewis B. Puller Jr. Veterans Benefits Clinic at William & Mary Law School. She moved to Stetson 2014. At the clinic, she and her law students primarily help veterans who are homeless or on the edge. For them, receiving disability benefits can make a dramatic difference in their lives. Veterans who qualify for 100 percent of the benefits get almost $3,000 a month, tax-free.
Running into delays and confusion along the way to receiving benefits is hard enough. But to have them suddenly shut off, with no explanation except they think you’re dead?
“A veteran would feel like they’re up in the air a lot,” Simcox said.