WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs has overpaid more than $100 million in pensions and other compensation to veterans who are in prison, VA Inspector General Michael Missal said Tuesday at a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing.
Federal law requires the VA to reduce compensation and pension payments for veterans who are incarcerated for more than 60 days, but the VA has been slow in processing the cuts, causing significant overpayments.
If the situation is left unaddressed, the inspector general estimates the total overpayments could double between fiscal years 2016 and 2020, said Rep. Ralph Abraham, chairman of the Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs Subcommittee.
Processing the reductions was put on the back burner for the last four years because the Veterans Benefits Administration wanted to focus on reducing backlogged disability claims.
“In clearing out the backlog, however, we’ve asked you to make some tough decisions,” said Nevada Rep. Dina Titus, the top Democrat on the subcommittee. “And the results of that have been unfortunate in some areas. … That’s one of the things we’re addressing today.”
Beth Murphy, the VBA’s director of compensation service, said her agency has trouble getting complete data on imprisoned veterans. The Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Social Security Administration do not provide the dates of conviction or incarceration, Murphy said, so the VBA must check each case manually rather than merging data sets.
Although receiving overpayments is a crime, Abraham said it’s not fair to blame the veterans. Vets who are in prison are required to notify the VA, but Abraham said the VA does not provide adequate information on how to be reached.
“Besides, does VA really expect a veteran to remember to contact VA from prison what may be many years after receiving a decision letter so VA can reduce their compensation payments?” he said. “I would venture to say that these veterans have other more urgent matters on their minds.”
The VBA now has systems to retroactively recover overpayments, said David McLenachen, director of the VBA’s Appeals Management Center.
However, Abraham raised a concern: Debts that cannot be recouped from veterans will become the responsibility of American taxpayers.
“Somebody has got to own this. Somebody has to be accountable for this,” he said. “It’s not responsible government, it’s not responsible business, it’s not responsible to our taxpayers.”
A June audit of the VBA’s payments to incarcerated veterans by the inspector general’s office included six recommended changes. Missal said the VBA has concurred with the recommendations, and his office will continue to monitor the VBA’s progress and to hold it accountable.