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Maui News: Kula woman helps restore benefits to families of veterans

Her letter to Akaka brought attention to unknown glitch in VA computer system

December 15, 2008

By WILL HOOVER, The Honolulu Advertiser

Thanks to a 71-year-old Maui woman, tens of thousands of widows and widowers of veterans will receive millions of dollars in federal benefits wrongfully denied them over the past 12 years.

"I was very surprised that I would have an impact for all those other women," Ruby Maile Sasaoka of Kula said. "I had no idea they were going through the same thing."

Her husband, Raymond Fusao Sasaoka, fought in the Korean War with the U.S. Army and lost his hearing during the conflict. After he died at age 76 in 2007, Sasaoka used her husband's final benefit check of $2,669 to pay for his funeral expenses.

What happened next, according to the Veteran Affairs Department, were computer glitches that resulted in money being seized by the government from her bank account and the accounts of other elderly survivors.

Congress passed a law in 1996 giving veterans' spouses the right to keep their partners' final month of benefits. It instructed the VA to make changes to comply with the law, which took effect for veterans who died after Dec. 31, 1996.

But the VA never updated its computers, which send checks and notification letters. As a result, widows were either denied the final month of payment or told to send the checks back. In many cases, if the checks were already deposited or spent, the U.S. Treasury seized the money directly from the widow's or widower's account.

Sasaoka said a letter told her she would have to return the money.

"And I started repaying that in February, and I kept putting money in," said Sasaoka, who said she had paid back a total of $1,575 of the money. "And in September I kept going to my ATM and finding out there was no available balance. And I couldn't figure out what was happening."

When she asked her bank where her money had gone, she was told the Treasury Department had deducted the entire amount from her account. She said that because she had never been notified that had happened, her personal checks had bounced and "my credit was just haywire."

"I was thinking, 'What did I do wrong?' ''

In frustration, Sasaoka sent a letter to Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

Akaka told Veterans Affairs Secretary James Peake about the problem. Peake instructed the Veterans Benefits Administration to update its systems quickly to prevent future denials of benefits.

The Veterans Affairs Department said Saturday it wasn't fully aware of the problem. It pledged to work quickly to give back the pension and disability checks - ranging from $100 to more than $2,500 - that hundreds of thousands of spouses should have received during the month of their husband's or wife's death.

"This problem must be fixed," said Peake. The department indicated in an "action plan" provided to the Associated Press that back payments that could total millions of dollars could be given to surviving spouses sometime after next February, once it can identify them.

"This flawed practice has caused serious hardship for many widows," Akaka said Saturday. "Now that this problem has been brought to light, I trust that surviving spouses will receive the benefits they are due."

The VA has yet to identify the number of widows and widowers affected, but acknowledged it could be "sizable." Akaka's committee estimates that 50,000 widows each year since 1996 could be affected, based on VA numbers indicating that more than 100,000 veterans - some of whom may have been single or divorced - die each year while receiving VA benefits.

Out of that 50,000, some spouses might have received the payments they were due if they called the VA at the time to inquire about their rights.

Sasaoka said she finally got her money back from the Treasury Department last month. She's happy about that, but said her credit is still messed up because of what happened.

"My husband was so proud of fighting for this country," she said. "He volunteered to go into the Korean battlefields. And he lost his hearing, and he ended up with post-traumatic stress. I can't understand the way they treat widows."

She reiterated that she was pleased to have helped other widows by bringing the issue to Akaka's attention.

The disclosure comes as the VA scrambles to upgrade its technology systems before legislation providing for millions of dollars in new GI education benefits takes effect in August. Thousands of veterans currently also endure six-month waits for disability benefits, despite promises by Peake and his predecessor, Jim Nicholson, to reduce delays.

President-elect Barack Obama has pledged to "fix the benefits bureaucracy" at the VA. Last week, he named retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, a former Army chief of staff born on Kauai, to be the next VA secretary.

* The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Year: [2008] , 2007 , 2006

December 2008

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