From: The Honorable Tony Cardenas
Current cosigners: Kuster, Amata Radewagen, González-Colón, Bera, Vargas, Comstock, Lujan Grisham, Hanabusa, Gabbard, Lynch, Shea-Porter, Watson Coleman, Welch, Garamendi, Takano
Please join me in sending a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Shulkin asking for answers about the increase in recent years of overpayment notices to veterans who receive disability payments. The notice informs veterans that they have been overpaid and
that their disability payments will be withheld until the “debt” is repaid. It presumes the veteran is at fault and places the entire burden on the veteran to show that he or she is not at fault. These overpayments can create a debt of thousands of dollars,
which can heavily impact a veteran’s ability to pay his or her mortgage or to even put food on the table.
In addition to the increase in frequency, the veterans have been receiving notices that do not provide them with the information they need to represent themselves at hearings to contest the overpayment. The veteran must request audits of his or her account.
As we know, the claims and appeals backlogs are increasing and there must be work done on our part to fix it. In the interim, the lives of our veterans receiving disabilities payments should not be so abruptly disrupted.
I hope that you will sign on so we can get to the bottom of this and work with the VA to fix it. We need to do better for our veterans. Deadline for signing on is Tuesday, April 11 at noon. For more information or to sign, please contact Tejasi Thatte
Member of Congress
APRIL XX, 2017
Dear Secretary Shulkin:
We write to express our frustration that veterans, without receiving much information at all, have had their disability payments stopped or garnished. It has been reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs informed 187,000 in 2016 that they were overpaid
and that their disability compensation would be withheld until the debt is paid back. Veterans’ advocates have noted that overpayment letters have been on the rise since 2013 when the disability claims backlog was exposed, likely as an unfortunate consequence
of trying to get through the claims faster.
Veterans receive disability compensation because they live with diseases and injuries that resulted from their military services. These disability payments are the bread and butter for many of our former service members who put their lives on the line for
our country and were injured while protecting all of us. Disability payments are used for food, family expenses, and mortgages. Some individuals have challenged this debt collection, only to be frustrated by bureaucracy and long appeals processes as a result
of the Department’s growing backlog.
We understand that the VA has tried to overcome the claims backlog in recent years. We also believe that the hiring freeze that has resulted from the President’s January 23, 2017 executive order has had a disproportionate effect on our veterans. Despite
these issues, the VA should take care not to disrupt these life-sustaining disability payments and affect veterans in such an abrupt manner. Distributing disability payments to veterans, realizing that they have been overpaid, and then stopping or garnishing
the payments is unacceptable. Not knowing how you will pay for your mortgage or put food on the table is traumatic for anyone, but it is particularly so for veterans living with mental health disorders. We simply must do better for them.
The main issues are twofold: 1. that veterans are presumed at fault and have the burden to prove that the overpayment was not their fault, and 2. that veterans are not receiving adequate information in the notice of overpayment and must request an audit
of their account.
We in Congress would like to work with you on a solution to these issues. We want to know what can be fixed within the VA and what requires legislation. Specifically,
- Why are the overpayments made in the first place?
- What percentage of overpayments are made because beneficiaries have not disclosed a change in circumstance?
- What percentage of overpayments are made as a result of errors on the part of the VA?
- What information is provided to the veterans in the overpayment letters?
- Are veterans informed of what exactly caused the overpayment so that they can adequately represent themselves at hearings?
- When a veteran requests an audit of his or her account, how long does it take to receive that information?
- If a veteran files for a waiver, does that action stay the withholding or garnishing of the disability payments? Does the recoupment get stayed when the veteran files an appeal?
- How many/what percentage of waivers of the overpayment “debts” are granted?
- If the veteran and the VA agree that the veteran was overpaid and needs to pay that money back, what steps will the VA take to ensure that there is a reasonable payment or garnishment schedule, such that the veteran still receives adequate, livable disability
As you know, the U.S. Government Accountability Office recently led and released a study on the VA disability appeals process. The study found that in 2015 over 427,000 appeals were left pending and that veterans waited, on average, 3 years to hear back
on decisions. If the VA does not improve the appeals process, including hiring adequate staff, the GAO anticipates that the number of years wait will increase to 8.5 years by FY2026. Some of these fixes can be made within the VA and we understand that you
are taking steps to address them, including exempting Veterans Benefits Administration jobs from the President’s hiring freeze and requesting a hiring surge. Some of these fixes require legislation. Our colleagues on the House Veterans Affairs Committee
view fixing the appeals backlog as a priority and continue to work hard on legislation to fix the bottleneck plaguing the VA and our veterans.
We understand that the Department of Veteran Affairs has a duty to taxpayers to ensure that their money is not mismanaged. However, taking money from the pockets of disabled retired American service members without properly explaining or answering questions
must no longer continue. We look forward to your responses and working together on solutions.