SEMINOLE, Fla. (TheBlaze/AP) -- The federal government has acknowledged that it wrongly declared more than 100 veterans dead and suspended their benefit payments, and says it is changing its policy of confirming deaths.
Mike Rieker, a 69-year-old Vietnam War Navy veteran who was among those wrongly declared dead, said his situation turned serious when he realized he might go weeks or more without a benefits check while the situation was ironed out.
"I spent five minutes arguing on the phone with a lady about me being dead," he said with a wry smile at a news conference Tuesday. Eventually, "I started looking around the house for things to sell," he added.
Republican U.S. Rep. David Jolly of Florida brought the issue to the Department of Veterans Affairs' attention in a November letter. In response, the VA acknowledged that it had erroneously stopped benefits to 115 people from July 7, 2014, to April 1, 2015, because officials believed they were dead.
Now, the department is "updating its process to request further confirmation of the beneficiary's death before it terminates payments," VA spokesman Randal Noller said in a statement to The Associated Press.
When officials think a veteran is dead, the department will send a letter to his or her address and request confirmation of the death from a surviving family member, according to a Dec. 10 letter from the VA to Jolly's office. If the VA doesn't hear from the family - or from a veteran erroneously believed dead - only then will the department terminate payments, according to the letter.
Jolly said that he's grateful the department took action and that VA blamed the problems on computer and human error.
The VA verifies its beneficiaries' entitlement through an automated match with the Social Security Administration's Death Master File, Noller said.
"Although these types of errors are a small percentage, we sincerely regret the inconvenience caused by such errors," Noller said in his statement.
In Rieker's case, under the new rules he would have had a 30-day period to present evidence that he was alive and well, Jolly said.
The Washington Examiner reported Tuesday that 115 veterans have been wrongfully declared dead in just a nine-month period. The agency is currently working to determine why those 115 veterans were thought to have been deceased.
Under the new policy, VA officials will rely on an automatic system to designate a veteran as legally dead that is based off the Social Security Administration's database, rather than allow employees to make that determination manually.
The new policy will then require the VA to send the veteran in question a letter before stopping his or her benefit payments. Either a survivor of the veteran must confirm the death, or the veteran himself must reply to the agency and indicate that the death declaration was made in error.