- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

DUNEDIN, Fla. (AP) - Mike Rieker, a 69-year-old Vietnam Navy veteran, relies on his Veterans Affairs benefits to get him through the month.

That’s why the Pinellas County, Florida, resident was alarmed when his VA check didn’t show up in his bank account Monday. He called the Department of Veterans Affairs office to find out why, and their response was stunning: The benefits had been suspended because he was dead.

“Well, I’m not,” Rieker retorted. “I woke up this morning and I’m feeling rather chipper, in fact.”

As it turns out, Rieker is one of six Tampa Bay area residents who were getting veterans benefits, but then were declared dead - despite being very much alive.

U.S. Rep. David Jolly, who represents a section of Florida’s Gulf Coast near Tampa, said he’s handled a total of five such cases in the past 18 months, and a neighboring congressman in the Tampa Bay area received a similar call as well.

“It’s a very serious matter,” said Jolly. “How many cases are there nationwide?”

Jolly is calling on VA Secretary Robert A. McDonald to investigate the scope of the problem.

Randy Noller, a spokesman for the VA, said Thursday that the agency is looking into the situation and will respond to Jolly.

“We sincerely regret the inconvenience caused by such errors and work to restore benefits as quickly as possible after any such error is brought to our attention,” the VA wrote in a statement, adding that the erroneous notifications “represent a very small number of beneficiaries in comparison to the millions of transactions completed each year.”

The agency added that it’s strengthening its verification process in “notice of death” cases.

U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller said the problem has been going on for years and it “indicates that VA’s system for identifying deceased veterans and dependents is in need of an overhaul.”

In a statement released Thursday, the congressman who represents parts of Florida’s Panhandle added, “It’s time for VA to initiate a review to identify and correct these obvious deficiencies in its system in order put a stop to this problem once and for all. If, as VA has claimed in the past, these mistakes are simple cases of human error, it’s incumbent upon the department to swiftly hold the responsible employees accountable.”

News reports of cases similar to Rieker’s have cropped up. One Brevard County, Florida, man said the VA had declared him dead four times. Another veteran from Illinois also received a letter denying him benefits because he was deceased - and the same day, in a different envelope, received a new VA card to get care at a VA hospital.

Last November, Mary Ann Clough of Clearwater, Florida, opened a letter that the VA sent to her house, addressed to her family, offering condolences on her death. It said the government would stop sending her monthly checks for the military service of her deceased second husband.

Clough visited the bank and, indeed, money was missing from her account.

“The bank told me, ‘No, you’re deceased,’” the 86-year-old woman said.

Jolly’s office helped both Clough and Rieker.

Rieker said Thursday that the VA assured him the money will be deposited in his account by mid-month.

“Apparently they confused me with someone who had the same name who died in June in Arizona,” he said.

Earlier in the summer, the VA said it couldn’t say how many veterans died while waiting to sign up for health care.

Congress approved a sweeping overhaul of the department in response to several headline-grabbing woes, but the VA continues to be plagued by missteps, including an internal report indicating that nearly one-third of veterans with pending applications for VA health care likely have already died. VA officials said they were unable to determine how many veterans died, whether they truly were seeking VA health care or had merely indicated interest in signing up.


Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tamaralush

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