The VA’s efforts to recoup overpayments made to veterans are putting many vets deep into debt, often with no recourse.
“You get all of these promises that, ‘Hey, you do 20 years and you’ll get this.’ And when it comes down to the end, it’s like, damn. You really can’t support your family when they are taking your whole check away.”
That comment came from Army veteran Tad Steckler, 40, a retired master sergeant and winner of a medal for heroism, in an interview with VICE News that ran Monday. Steckler was discussing the traumatic ordeal he just experienced with Veterans Affairs (VA).
In June of last year, Steckler’s wife opened a letter from the agency thinking it was her husband’s monthly disability check. Enclosed, however, was a bill from the VA to the tune of over $10,000. The agency claimed Steckler had been overcompensated in error and that the debt must be paid.
The VA said the master sergeant’s monthly check would be withheld until it was.
“If Blue Cross Blue Shield gave you too much of a benefit, they would have to sue you first; they couldn’t go straight into collections,” attorney Daniel Willman told VICE News regarding the abrupt manner in which the government demands reimbursement. “But because it’s the federal government, it can go straight into collections.”
For the Stecklers, the issue came down to marital status. Steckler had taken his ex-wife and her two children off his military healthcare policy when his divorce was finalized and had informed the Department of Defense of the split. Thinking this was enough, he never informed the VA directly.
The master sergeant says if it was a mistake, it was an honest one. But even still, he says the government has yet to show exactly how — and by how much — he was overpaid.
“If we owe, then we owe. We get it,” he told VICE News. “But can you show me what I owe and how? I don’t know any businesses that would get away with something like this.”
After months of letters, filings, and phone calls — during which, the Stecklers were informed the initial debt quote itself was a miscalculation, and that the family actually owed nearly $22,000 — Tad and his wife Robyn were left with very few answers and even fewer options. In September of last year, they set up a payment plan with the VA to repay the supposed debt. They opted to pay $360 a month over five years, to be drawn from Steckler’s disability check.
“They basically blackmail you with the option of losing your house and filing bankruptcy or (to) go on a payment plan for some enigmatic, elusive, ever-changing debt,” said Robyn.
And the process took its toll on the veteran. Robyn recounted to VICE News that throughout their dealings with the VA, she watched her husband grow more and more depressed — to the point where she was worried he would harm himself.
“In a few days I will have to start driving the girls to and from school again, and I dread it,” Robyn wrote in one letter to the VA. “I know we will worry that he is home alone during those times. We cannot take him with us because with the added stress of this huge debt, his PTS symptoms have increased and he is back to being unable to handle traffic, noise and becomes disoriented.”
Unfortunately, Tad Steckler is far from alone with these woes. VICE News’ investigation revealed that the VA sent out nearly 190,000 such overpayment notices in 2016. One combat medic from Idaho was told he owed the government nearly $10,000. An Army sniper from Colorado is purported to owe over $11,000.
An NPR report from January of 2016 shed light on the case of Clay Hull, an army vet whose military career ended when he was wounded by an improvised explosive device. The government said Hull owed it $38,000 in reimbursement for payments received while Hull was in prison for eighteen months on a weapons charge. Hull fought the VA and eventually got the debt erased.
His attitude about the whole ordeal mirrors Steckler’s.
“If I’m in the wrong, I’ll admit it,” he told NPR. “But I’m not going to let somebody just push me around, especially the VA.”
NPR’s investigation found that in 2015 alone, the VA overpaid vets by $24 million — money it then tried to get back
As to the manner of that debt collection, VICE News wrote Monday that the VA says “there is no limit on how much it can ask a vet to repay, and no limit on how far back the agency is willing to go to collect overpayment debts.”
It’s not a system that works in a soldier’s favor, says Douglas Rosinski, an attorney who represents veterans.
“VA is so fragmented that it is almost impossible to correct an error in the underlying facts before VA turns the case over for collection,” he said. “If the underlying facts are incorrect, which they are in many instances, it is nearly impossible to jump through all the legal hoops to appeal the determination before VA executes its recovery action.”
In all such cases, the burden is on the soldier to disprove the VA’s claims. In all cases, as well, payments to veterans are withheld until the agency is fully reimbursed.
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