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KOLR 10 Investigates: VA Orders Ozarks Vet to Pay Back Benefits

BUFFALO, Mo. -- After receiving benefits for years, a Buffalo veteran who served in the Korean war was cut off from his pension and served with a bill for more than $100,000. Veterans Affairs didn't budge on the bill -- until KOLR 10 started asking questions.
They want me to pay them back $146,000 and I don't have that kind of money. This is the thanks us veterans get. All we got is social security. Social security is all we got.
BUFFALO, Mo. -- After receiving benefits for years, a Buffalo veteran who served in the Korean war was cut off from his pension and served with a bill for more than $100,000.

A friend stepped in and helped reinstate Sam Mathis' benefit checks, but Veterans Affairs didn't budge on the bill, until KOLR10 News started asking questions.

Mathis and his wife of nearly 20 years, Betty, said their home is modest, but it's what they could afford after losing their mobile home in a 2012 tornado. Now, the couple fear they will lose all they have left to staggering bills.

"I'm about to lose, about to lose my home," Sam Mathis said.

Mathis relies on his veterans pension to take care of the mortgage.

"They took all my veterans pension away from me and all we've got now is social security," Sam Mathis said.

Betty said Mathis received the same amount of pension money from 1999-2011.

"At that time he was getting $777 a month and if they'd left it alone this never would have happened," Betty Mathis said. 

In the summer of 2013, the couple received a correspondence from the VA. After an in-person meeting with a field examiner, it was determined Mathis would be paid more than $1,500 each month.

Then, the check they depended on stopped coming.

"Went down there to pull out the house payment, no money," she said.

The couple's insurance agent and family friend, Terri Reed, stepped in to help get the pension payment back, challenging the VA with what led to a mind-numbing amount of paperwork filled with misinformation and mixed messages.

Reed said things then went from bad to worse. In June of 2013, Mathis received a letter from the VA reaffirming his non-service connected pension. Later that year, in December, two bills arrived for $142,000. The letter went on to explain they failed to claim Betty's social security as part of their income on a financial status report.

"She says she has reported that all along," Reed said.

It also says as part of the bill collection  the department of the treasury can and will withhold every state and federal payment the couple entitled to.

"They want me to pay them back $146,000 and I don't have that kind of money. This is the thanks us veterans get," Sam Mathis said. "All we got is social security. Social security is all we got."

In a correspondence dated less than one week later, from the same office, same address, a letter that said they received a financial status report from the couple, but could not determine why it was submitted. In March 2014, more letters arrived. The benefits had been reinstated, but were cut in half to $786.

"They received that in April and May and then they stopped paying that in June and July, they have not received payments the last two months from the VA," Reed said.

To navigate these waters, Reed looked for help from Buffalo Disabled Veterans Service Officer Richard Beavers.

Beavers has a service-related disability related to his time serving in Vietnam. Mathis has a non-service related pension, meaning he wasn't injured during his time in Korea. That's why his wife's income must be reported.

"I think it's a tragic shame the number of people we have contacted to receive help for this couple and it seems as though it it is falling on deaf ears," Beavers said.

Reed said she filed letters of appeal to dismiss the debt and reinstate the benefits. One appeal was denied, but she said she isn't stopping.

The Mathis couple is relying on food stamps and help from a local charity to get by. They are three months behind on mortgage payments and still have VA debt hanging over their heads.

"It makes me cry," Betty Mathis said.

It took KOLR10 News nearly a day of internet searches and phone calls, reaching only recordings and dead ends, to track down the right person to talk to about the Mathis case. They were finally reached through social media.

Late Thursday afternoon, the VA responded, saying they first learned about Betty Mathis' social security in 2006.

Though previous debt waivers had been denied, since KOLR10 News' inquiry, the VA determined Thursday they will now waive the money owed from June 2006 until now.

The VA claims they are now conducting a series of audits to determine how much Mathis owes for the period from 2000 to June 2006. Through a series of follow up questions, KOLR10 News learned the best estimate for that amount is $44,000, nearly $100,000 less than the previous amount.

Mathis can appeal the remaining amount, which Reed said will definitely happen.


The following is the entire response received by KOLR10 News from the VA:

VA helps Veterans and their families cope with financial challenges by providing supplemental income through the Veterans Pension and Survivors Pension benefit programs. Pension is a tax-free monetary benefit payable to low-income wartime Veterans. The yearly family income must be less than the amount set by Congress to qualify for the Veterans Pension benefit.

The VA pension benefit Mr. Mathis received was based on income information provided by Mr. Mathis and/or his fiduciary. This information was incomplete or inaccurate for the majority of the reporting period. This created an overpayment for which by law the recipient is responsible. VA became aware of increased household income in June 2006 and did not request clarification from the Veteran’s fiduciary regarding the discrepancy with previous self-reported income. During a meeting in January 2012 the Veteran’s fiduciary informed the VA of the Veteran’s spouse’s receipt of Social Security benefits, and the VA did not timely reduce the Veteran’s benefit. VA will be waiving the Veteran’s debt from the earliest date possible, June 2006.

Historically the Pension program has relied upon a combination of recipients self-reporting income changes and matching programs with other federal agencies to identify discrepant income data. The VA routinely issues due process to count income claimants do not report and are discovered via governmental matching programs. In December 2013 the pension program evolved to include upfront verification of a Veteran or Survivor’s income via data sharing with the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration. The integrity of the data reported by and certified to be accurate by claimants remains a key component to administering a needs-based government program.

The VA pension benefit Mr. Mathis received was based on income information provided by Mr. Mathis and/or his fiduciary. This information was incomplete or inaccurate for the majority of the reporting period. This created an overpayment for which by law the recipient is responsible. VA became aware of increased household income in June 2006 and did not request clarification from the Veteran’s fiduciary regarding the discrepancy with previous self-reported income. During a meeting in January 2012 the Veteran’s fiduciary informed the VA of the Veteran’s spouse’s receipt of Social Security benefits, and the VA did not timely reduce the Veteran’s benefit.

Benefit amounts are based on income and level of disability. Mr. Mathis’ benefit was increased when he was found entitled to special monthly pension as a result of needing assistance with the activities of daily living.

A series of audits are in process to validate the amount of debt assignable to the Veteran. Upon completion of the second audit an amended waiver decision will be promptly completed to grant a partial balance for the amount of debt incurred from the first of the month after the initial report of household income change forward (July 1, 2006). The Veteran’s household will remain responsible for the debt incurred up until that point (February 1, 2000 through June 30, 2006). Notification letters will be provided as soon as possible. At that time the Veteran’s fiduciary may contact the Debt Management Center to discuss payment options.

The VA sends all claimants an annual letter informing them of the amount they are receiving, the income we are counting, and their responsibility to timely report income changes to VA.
 
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