Veterans Affairs Declares Thousands of Living Vets Dead, Cancels Benefits

AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

The latest scandal from the Department of Veterans Affairs is a series of four thousand errors, which mistakenly declared living veterans dead, terminating their benefits.

The Wall Street Journal reports there were 4,201 such errors over the past five years, which the VA insisted means it has a 99.83 percent accuracy rate.

That spin did not fly with angry veterans or their congressional representatives, especially since this revelation comes atop a long string of VA scandals and an equally long string of unfulfilled promises that the Department will be reformed.

“Generally, I just don’t think people understand how bad it could be. It could be one day you’ve got a house, and the next you don’t,” 69-year-old Navy vet Michael Rieker of Duenedin, Florida, told the Journal. He managed to convince the VA he was still alive, but then they cut his benefits off again a few months later.

Riker’s congressman, Rep. David Jolly, blasted the VA in a statement only partially excerpted by the Wall Street Journal.

“These numbers confirm our suspicion, that mistaken deaths by the VA have been a widespread problem impacting thousands of veterans across the country. It’s a problem that should have been addressed years ago, as it has caused needless hardships for thousands of people who had their benefits terminated and their world turned upside down,” said Jolly, who requested a full report on the problem after learning about a series of mistaken death cases in the Tampa Bay area.

“I’ll be asking the VA for a new report at the end of this year so we can see the numbers from 2016,” Jolly promised. “If the VA’s new policy is indeed working, this problem should be eliminated. If the problem persists, then Congress will demand further action.”

“We simply cannot have men and women who have sacrificed for this country see their rightful benefits wrongfully terminated because the VA mistakenly declares them dead,” he continued. “This creates tremendous financial hardships and undue personal turmoil for veterans, many who are seniors relying primarily if not solely on their VA benefits.”

Rieker was somewhat more forgiving, saying he believes the Department is “just inundated – they are so overstacked with things to do, they can’t keep up.”

He also found a little mordant humor in his situation. “I walked into the sandwich shop, and they were like, ‘Hey, it’s the dead guy!’” he recalled.

This new scandal arrives as many are still fuming over V.A. Secretary Bob McDonald’s breathtakingly foolish attempt to wave off complaints about long wait times for medical service by comparing veterans to children waiting in line for rides at Disneyland. Calls have been made for McDonald’s resignation over the remarks.

The Secretary probably did himself no favors by trotting out the arrogant non-apology that has become so popular with Obama administration officials: it’s all our fault for misunderstanding him.

“If I was misunderstood, if I said the wrong thing, I’m glad that I have the opportunity to correct it,” he said during an MSNBC interview with Andrea Mitchell. “I’m only focused on one thing, and that’s better caring for veterans. That’s my job, that’s why I’m here.”

MSNBC noted that McDonald “stopped short of an apology” during his first interview after the firestorm erupted, although Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson came a little closer by telling the Senate Veteran Affairs committee on Tuesday that “Bob and I deeply regret the distraction from the Veterans work that’s been caused by these remarks, and the perception that was created that veterans’ access to care is anything other than our absolute top priority.”

The problem with McDonald’s comment is that it was not merely a poor choice of words. It was sadly emblematic of the attitude that has gripped the VA, and indeed much of the federal government, during the Obama years, which have produced a cavalcade of stories about Big Government incompetence — usually accompanied by hurricanes of political spin, if not outright cover-ups.

Also, as with the VA “death list” scandal, we frequently learn that the officials responsible have been collecting huge performance bonuses.

McDonald got in trouble for saying of the VA, “The days to an appointment is really not what we should be measuring. What we should be measuring is the veterans’ satisfaction. When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? What’s important? What’s important is: What’s your satisfaction with the experience?”

Given that the secret VA waiting lists killed people while the responsible officials used doctored paperwork to award themselves bonuses, it seems safe to say the victims’ “satisfaction with the experience” was very low indeed.

Furthermore, as Disney was quick to point out, they most certainly do measure the number of hours people wait in line and use that data to improve the quality of their theme parks constantly.

“A large team of highly trained industrial engineers are tasked with improving our guest’s experiences, from transportation, to guest flow, to ride comfort and certainly wait times,” a Disney spokesperson said.

This is not just a gaffe by McDonald. It is a symptom of a bureaucratic culture that fundamentally misunderstands what government agencies are supposed to be doing and has a very unhealthy perspective on the relationship between citizens and the state.

Anger about McDonald’s comparison of veterans waiting for medical treatment to theme-park customers is certainly understandable, but the second layer of outrage in his comments is that he doesn’t seem to understand how private enterprises work or how the possibility of losing their customers drives them to achieve excellence in every aspect of their operations.

Obama-style big government views citizens as captive “customers” at best and something closer to serfs at worst. The bureaucrats aren’t worried about disgruntled clients taking their business elsewhere. It shows in every aspect of what this government does and how it responds to news of its worst failures leaking out — usually despite its best efforts to keep that information hidden.

Why did it take a determined congressman, motivated by complaints from his constituents, to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to take a hard look at how many vets it has been incorrectly declaring dead and sharing that information with the public? And why would any sane American flirt with the idea of letting this government control all health care, all the necessities of life, after seeing what it’s done to our military veterans?


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