- The Washington Times - Friday, December 19, 2008

Things are finally right between America’s military widows and the Department of Veterans Affairs, for the time being.

The federal agency announced Thursday that it has corrected a faulty computer program that wrongfully denied benefits to the surviving spouses of veterans for the past 12 years. Retroactive checks will be issued; a new toll-free number has been established to help the wronged.

And there are many. An estimated 600,000 widows and widowers were entitled to receive a one-time “month of death” benefit paid to them when their spouse died - a benefit guaranteed by law since 1996.

But VA computers had not been updated at the time. Instead, the agency automatically sent out letters to survivors stating that the compensation was an overpayment and to send back the money; in some cases, the funds were automatically withdrawn by the government from the survivor’s bank account with no notice.

The glitch has been fixed, thanks to a VA task force, a Hawaiian senator and a determined widow named Ruby. Compensation will begin going out to survivors at the end of December.

“This benefit payment is long overdue to many of our beneficiaries,” said VA Secretary James B. Peake. “In these difficult economic times, it is imperative that we take aggressive action to fix this situation for the families of our veterans.”

Not much would have happened had it not been for Ruby Maile Sasaoka, the widow of a Korean War veteran who used her husband’s final benefit payment of $2,669 to pay for his funeral last year. In a sobering moment, Mrs. Sasaoka discovered that the amount had been inexplicably deducted from her bank account, prompted by the old VA computer glitch. She bounced checks, her credit was compromised.

Neither bank nor federal agency had any answers for her. Mrs. Sasaoka wrote to Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat and chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. By Dec. 5, the lawmaker had contacted Mr. Peake, citing the “flawed” VA notification system and demanding action. He got it. Within a week, an internal task force has been dispatched to right the wrong.

An “action plan” to repay eligible survivors is now in place, based on reviews of the VA’s payment records for veterans who died after Dec. 31, 1996, and who are survived by a spouse. Retroactive benefits could range from $100 to $2,500.

Checks will continue to be issued when unpaid beneficiaries are found, the VA said.

A Survivors’ Call Center has been established. The VA is encouraging spouses to call 800/749-8387, Monday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Central Standard Time. Inquiries also may be submitted online at www.vba.va.gov/survivorsbenefit.htm.

It is a cautionary tale, however, particularly as the VA faces the challenge of compensating thousands of veterans with new GI educational benefits, which take effect in August.

“It is difficult to determine if a law is being properly carried out when an automated procedures are used,” Mr. Akaka said.

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