The U.S. House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill aimed at increasing accountability at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, three years after the agency was plunged into a major scandal over falsified records. A slew of other reform efforts are underway, but veterans and advocates say the VA remains confusing and frustrating to deal with.
One key reform not yet on the table is an overhaul of how the VA collects debts from veterans and their family members.
Julie Larsen of the American Legion, the largest advocacy organization for veterans in the United States, testified before Congress last month that some of these debts are the VA’s fault — the result of the same types of haphazard systems and standards that caused the 2014 records scandal.
Many debts result from benefits overpayments — because of an error in accounting or reporting, the agency pays a veteran too much. A VICE News investigation earlier this year found that the VA sent nearly 187,000 overpayment notices to veterans and their families in 2016. Some were for debts in the tens of thousands of dollars, with the potential to upend veterans’ lives.
Under current rules, the VA can withhold benefits from veterans it says owes the agency money, even if the debt is the result of some error on the VA’s part. Veterans who received overpayment letters told us they had to jump through hoops to get more information and they often ran into dead ends in the appeals process. Some had their benefits withheld without ever understanding how much they really owed the VA or why.
After we published our story in March, more than 70 veterans and their families reached out to say they’d faced similar challenges trying to settle their debts to the VA. Here are a few of their stories.
Scott Oswell joined the military at age 17 and served for 16 years until he died in a helicopter crash during combat on July 4, 2007. He left behind a wife and three children. After his death, the VA told his widow, Cheri Lopez, that she would receive a monthly entitlement for the kids. When she remarried in 2008, she says, she informed the VA seven times in writing and over the phone and sent the U.S. Army a copy of the marriage certificate.
In December 2015, she opened her mail to find a notice from the VA saying she owed the agency $177, 655.05 for benefits she shouldn’t have received. The VA said she never told the military she had remarried.
Lopez appealed the debt and the agency admitted it had made a mistake. Now she owed $103,293.05. Lopez paid off the debt with the money she had set aside for expenses including her children’s college costs and their wedding funds. Lopez was five classes away from a bachelor’s degree but said she could not finish because the debt means she can no longer receive federal student aid.
The VA told Monique Rodriguez about a debt amounting to $2,514 in three separate letters she received between December 2015 and October 2016. Rodriguez received disability compensation as a result of her service, which she used to pay her mortgage. Rodriguez also served in the Army Reserves. Three years into that service, she was told that she shouldn’t have received both her drill pay from the Army Reserves and disability payments.
The VA began withholding her disability payments. She said the withholdings were inconsistent and without notice. Some months she would get her full disability check; one month she received nothing. The unpredictability made it difficult for her to plan the finances of her family of four. The VA ended up withholding $4,487 from Rodriguez, $1,972 more than the total from the original invoices. Rodriguez said she received no explanation for the increase.
Nicholas Raven served as a combat photojournalist for the U.S. Air Force for 23 years. He received disability compensation for PTSD, depression, and bilateral inguinal hernia. The disability compensation is his only source of income while he is pursuing a degree in engineering.
The VA sent him a letter in December 2014 telling him he owed $3,725. His debt was was also linked to drill pay from the Army Reserves. The VA was planning to take his full disability check in 30 days; without that money, he says, he could have lost his apartment and been left homeless. He said that when he called one of the VA’s regional offices in Houston, instead of providing him with more information on his debt, the representative gave him the number for the veterans homeless shelter. He pushed back on the debt and was able to agree upon a payment plan of $103 per month.
Raven asked the VA for documentation of the debt and the agency referred him to the U.S. Air Force. He requested his earning statements in early 2015 in order to compare the figures. He has been waiting for more than two years.
Advocates have called for reform in the debt collection process and say the VA and DOD should integrate their information-sharing systems to help avoid generating some of these debts in the first place.
The House-passed bill would make it easier to fire poorly performing VA employees and would safeguard protections for whistleblowers. The VA secretary also announced this month that the agency would transition its electronic health records platform to the same commercial system used by the Department of Defense so that patient data would be integrated into one system.
The VA also says it’s working to improve the debt collection process. According to a spokesperson, the agency aims to help veterans “resolve their issues quickly and expeditiously, and come to a mutually beneficial resolution.”
CORRECTION (June 15, 11:02 a.m.): An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the Army Reserves as the National Reserves.