Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District wants to help resolve what she says is a growing problem affecting many veterans in Maine and around the country: overpayment of benefits by Veterans Affairs.
The issue for veterans is being asked to repay large sums of money without advance notice or a way to appeal.
Earlier this year David Sheehan of Biddeford got an unexpected notice from the VA’s debt management center.
“And it says that I owe them $4,500,” he says.
Sheehan, a disabled veteran who spent 21 years in the Marines, says he receives about $1,000 a month in VA compensation. He has a mortgage payment and the usual stacks of bills. So when he was asked to repay such a large amount to the VA with no warning, he says he was shocked.
“I didn’t have the savings that I had years ago, and so $4,500 would have knocked me out,” he says.
The debt he owed to the VA, he says, was the result of a series of errors on the VA’s end after Sheehan notified the agency that he’d gotten divorced and then remarried.
Pingree says Sheehan’s story is not unusual. She and her colleagues in Congress have been getting similar complaints from their veteran constituents.
“We heard from people who found out from the VA that they owed large amounts of money and often they had no idea that they owed anything, or they were allegedly sent a notice but it might have gone to a state they never lived in or a place they hadn’t been for a long time,” she says.
Pingree’s office helped Sheehan resolve his problem with the VA. She has sponsored a bill, the Veterans Fair Debt Notice Act, that would try to remedy similar situations by requiring the VA to do two things: use certified mail for notifications and use plain language so veterans understand their rights.
With certified letters, Pingree says the VA can be sure that its notifications get to veterans. Without them, she says veterans can be hurt.
“These are people who served their country. They’re injured. They have PTSD. They’re already in a difficult situation and we’re putting them in an even more vulnerable position, sometimes a devastating position,” she says.
Pingree says the increase in overpayment errors appears to be tied, at least in part, to Veterans Affairs’ effort to reduce its backlog of benefit cases.
The VA did not respond to requests for comment for this story. A public hearing on Pingree’s bill is scheduled for Wednesday.