The Department of Veterans Affairs has suspended debt collections related to overpayments of pensions to low-income veterans or their survivors after the agency found it had mistakenly paid too much, in some cases, over a period of many years, department officials announced Friday.
The VA provides pensions to some veterans or survivors based on self-reported income that is later verified by the department, using data reported from outside sources such as the Social Security Administration and other federal agencies.
But between 2011 and 2022, as a result of errors in comparison data, VA officials were unable to "reliably verify" the self-reported income of these pensioners. When verification resumed in July 2022, nearly 10,000 beneficiaries were found to have higher income levels than they reported.
According to the department, this "resulted in VA pension overpayments which -- in some cases -- spanned many years.”
In the process of reviewing the pension verification process, the VA also found that roughly 30,000 more veterans and survivors, which it described as elderly and low income, may owe the department money as a result of pension debts.
"Recognizing the hardship and distress that these pension debts may cause, VA has paused the collection of all established pension debts and the establishment of new pension debts while we determine the path forward," officials said in a statement Friday.
The issue is one in a series of problems that have recently plagued the VA's information technology systems. In August, technical glitches prevented veterans from filing claims under the PACT Act or file appeals to PACT Act claims decisions, resulting in the department extending the filing deadline by four days and reaching out to veterans to ensure that their appeals were processed correctly.
Another 32,000 veterans received letters in late August notifying them that their disability claims submitted through the VA.gov website hadn't been processed.
And in September, VA officials said that the agency had failed to process more than 56,000 requests from veterans to update the status of dependents, some dating to 2011, resulting in overpayments or underpayments.
In all cases, the VA promised to track down all affected veterans and solve the discrepancies, to include back pay.
"We at VA deeply apologize to all impacted veterans, and we are working urgently to identify them, contact them, and ensure that they get all of the benefits and appeals decisions that they deserve," VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said at the time.
During a speech Monday on the state of the VA ahead of Veterans' Day, VA Secretary Denis McDonough acknowledged the department's struggle with IT issues but said the pension overpayments may have been less of a "technical failing" and more of a failure of executing policy “over the course of more than 10 years."
"For now, we are looking at how we address this in the context of a veteran-centric VA that makes sure our programs are built around and into veterans' lives, and respond to the veterans' needs rather than making sure that they follow our various requirements," McDonough said.
Regarding the payments, VA officials said they are pursuing options to provide as much pension debt relief as they can and will reach out directly to those affected to let them know about the suspension of debt collected.
VA officials also are reviewing the incident to determine why the data problems occurred and why it took so long to address.
"We apologize to affected veterans and their survivors for any distress that these pension debt notifications may have caused," VA officials said in a statement.
The VA would like veterans who have questions about debt management to visit the department's debt management website or call 800-827-0648.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com.