Approximately 1,300 disabled veterans were overpaid thousands of dollars under a Veterans Affairs Department education benefits program last year and now must figure out a way to pay that money back.
Why? Mostly because staff at VA regional offices didn’t check emails, a recent investigation by the VA Office of Inspector General has found.
The overpayments happened during the 2016-2017 academic year under the VA’s second-largest education program, Dependents’ Educational Assistance, which pays up to $1,224 for schooling per month to spouses and children of totally and permanently disabled veterans or deceased service members.
Veterans who are 100 percent service disabled are eligible to receive monthly stipends of $266 for each college-aged child they have in school as part of their disability check from the VA. But these benefits cannot overlap with DEA.
Yet, in it at least 70 percent of cases during the 2016-17 school year, they did, in large part because emails from veterans claim examiners were going unread at many VA regional offices.
Now, vets who were overpaid owe VA a total of $4.5 million for the department’s mistake — an average of more than $3,400 each.
This represents “a hardship for seriously disabled veterans,” the report states.
In its review of all 58 VA regional offices, Office of Inspector General auditors found that as of May 2018, 25 had an approximate total of 4,600 unread emails dating back to August 2016. The majority of these emails, 67 percent, were about DEA benefits and potentially required adjustments to veterans’ claims to keep them from being overpaid.
In interviews recorded in the report, VA staff at seven of these offices said they had not been monitoring mailboxes related to the DEA program before the audit.
For example, a representative from the Oakland, California, office “stated that the mailbox had not been monitored for three years because managers had been reassigned, but not their mailbox monitoring duties.”
Another in Houston said the DEA inbox was “not considered a workload priority” because of other workload targets the office was required to meet, according to the report.
Already, the VA has instituted a new policy requiring regional offices to check DEA-related emails twice a month, Susan Carter, a spokesperson for the agency, said in an email.
Additionally, the VA Office of Field Operations has committed to sending weekly reminders to check the emails to the regional offices and will likely incorporate oversight of this into future site visits, according to the report.
Joe Plenzler, a spokesman for Wounded Warrior Project, said the organization is concerned about the impact these overpayments will have on the affected veterans and plans to work with VA on the department’s plans to remedy the situation.
“We would hope that the VA would avoid any significant disruptions or financial burdens on the recipients,” he said in an email.
Carter said the agency has already identified the veterans who were overpaid and expects to complete all payment adjustments by June 30. Veterans will have several payment options available.
“VA is implementing improvements that will focus on the timely establishment of compensation adjustments, ensuring receipt of DEA program benefit notifications by VA regional office staff, and promptly identifying and rectifying payment duplications,” Carter said.
The inspector general’s report also recommends VA move to an electronic system to better identify when there’s a potential for veterans to get paid out of both programs in order to cut down on overpayments.
If delays continue, the report states, the VA could end up paying another $22.5 million in improper payments over the next five years.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.