A 94-year-old veteran on a fixed income told the Department of Veterans Affairs that his wife died in 2011 so that the VA would change his benefits.
Seven years later, the VA said it was processing the claim and updating his benefits, retroactively reducing those benefits and saddling him with the bill, Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., told VA leaders during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing about VA overpayments.
That veteran asked VA for an extension on his new debt. VA denied that request, Rice said.
"Why would it take seven years?" Rice asked VA leaders. "Why is the financial burden shifted to the veteran when they did nothing wrong?"
Another veteran, this one retired and disabled, told VA of his impending divorce and VA confirmed receipt. Ten years later, VA told the veteran it did not get documents confirming the divorce in the mail, and was retroactively charging him for 10 years of overpayments -- putting him $18,000 in debt, Rep. Max Rose, D-N.Y. said. His monthly benefits were docked and he faced costly attorney's fees to dispute it.
"Greatest country on earth and we do this to our veterans," Rose said, asking VA leaders for a commitment to fix the issue so that veteran and others like him don't "have to pay high-priced attorneys to fight his own country."
VA leaders agreed.
"I'm really sick of people thanking soldiers for their service and then screwing them over," Rose said.
VA overpayments can be caused by mistakes and errors in processing benefits changes, among other issues, VA leaders said, which leads to veterans receiving too much money and then the VA having to collect that money later, putting veterans in debt.
Chairman Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., said VA sent more than 600,000 debt collection notices to veterans and their families last year for overpayments totaling $1.6 billion, similar to previous years.
"This subcommittee has heard of too many cases in which VA’s efforts to recover overpayments result in confusion and hardship for veterans," Pappas said. "VA’s own mistakes can cause overpayments for veterans."
Ranking member Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., said financial hardship such as collections for VA overpayments like those detailed by Rice and Rose can cause major issues for veterans, and even "increase a person's risk of suicide."
"This is not a new issue," Bergman said. "When I asked the VA if they had a plan to get better, they said they were trying. Well, trying is not good enough."
VA Assistant Secretary for Management and Chief Financial Officer Jon Rychalski told Congress he "acknowledges our frailties" that lead to mistakes and delays that cause overpayments and veteran debt.
"Our mission must be to prevent debt creation," he said.
"There's no way I can justify what happened there," Rychalski said of the veterans Rice and Rose spoke of. "I've come across similar stories ... That's a complete failure on the part of the VA."
And Rychalski admitted that VA communication about debt and overpayments isn't always understood.
"The letters are not that clear, to be honest," he said, adding that the entire agency's debt collection process is "too clunky and too confusing."
Rychalski said VA plans to create an online portal in the next 3-4 months where veterans can view their medical debt online, and plans to include other types of debt by mid-2020. He also wants VA to consolidate its debt notifications "to decrease the amount of letters and prevent confusion."