Widows of war veterans have been wrongfully denied up to millions of dollars in government benefits over the past 12 years due to computer glitches that often resulted in money being seized from the elderly survivors' bank accounts.
The Veterans Affairs Department said Saturday it wasn't fully aware of the problem. It pledged to work quickly to give back the pension and disability checks — ranging from $100 to more than $2,500 — that hundreds of thousands of widows should have received during the month of their spouse's death.
"This problem must be fixed," said VA Secretary James Peake. The department indicated in an "action plan" provided to The Associated Press that up to millions of dollars in back payments could be given to widows sometime after next February, once it can identify them.
To expedite matters, the VA said widows who believe they were wrongfully denied payments can call its help line at 1-800-827-1000.
Congress passed a law in 1996 giving veterans' spouses the right to keep their partners' final month of benefits. It instructed the VA to make changes as needed to comply with the law, which took effect for spouses of veterans who died after Dec. 31, 1996.
But the VA never updated its automated computer systems, which send out checks and notification letters. As a result, widows were either denied the final month of payment or asked to send the checks back. In many cases, if the checks were already deposited or spent, the U.S. Treasury moved to seize the money directly from the widow's account.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, confronted Peake about the problem in a letter last week after receiving a complaint from a widow. In response, Peake instructed the Veterans Benefits Administration to update its systems as quickly as possible to prevent future denials of benefits.
"This flawed practice has caused serious hardship for many widows," Akaka said Saturday. "Now that this problem has been brought to light, I trust that surviving spouses will receive the benefits they are due."
The VA has yet to identify the exact number of widows affected, but acknowledged Saturday it could be "sizable." Akaka's committee estimates that 50,000 widows each year since 1996 could be affected, based on VA numbers indicating more than 100,000 veterans die each year — some of whom may have been single or divorced — while receiving VA benefits.
Out of that 50,000, some widows might have received the payments they were due if they called the VA at the time to inquire about their rights.
The disclosure comes as the VA is scrambling to upgrade government technology systems before new legislation providing for millions of dollars in new GI education benefits takes effect next August. Thousands of veterans currently also endure six-month waits for disability benefits, despite promises by Peake and his predecessor, Jim Nicholson, to reduce delays.
President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to "fix the benefits bureaucracy" at the VA. Last week, he named Retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff, to be the next VA secretary.