More than 4,200 veterans were mistakenly declared dead and had benefits cut off by Veterans Affairs officials over a five-year span, according to new department data that shows the problem was much bigger than previously believed.
The issue came to light after a congressional inquiry in 2015 by Rep. David Jolly, R-Fla., who for the last few years has been tracking multiple constituents' complaints about premature death notices.
After initially estimating the total veterans affected as around a dozen each month, VA released new information on the problem this week, pegging the mistakes as harming more than 70 veterans a month.
"These numbers confirm our suspicion, that mistaken deaths by the VA have been a widespread problem impacting thousands of veterans across the country," Jolly said in a statement.
"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."
The issue stems from lingering errors in Social Security Administration's record sharing with VA. When that department incorrectly listed a veteran as dead, VA policy was to cut off benefits immediately, doubling the frustration of victims looking to correct the record.
In 2015 alone, 1,025 veterans had their benefits terminated due to incorrect death classifications, only to have the department come back weeks or months later to fix the mistake.
Following congressional pressure, VA officials approved policy changes last December to mitigate the problem, giving individuals 30 days after a death notice is received to provide proof of a mistake.
The 4,200 premature death errors represent only about 0.2 percent of the total death benefit cut-offs VA handled from 2011 to 2015, but Jolly said each mistaken case can have long-term traumatic results for the victims.
He is asking VA for an annual survey tracking the problem, to ensure their fixes are working.
"If the VA's new policy is indeed working, this problem should be eliminated. If the problem persists, then Congress will demand further action," he said.
"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."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.