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November 20, 2023 | In The News

‘I’m afraid they’re gonna take everything’: Marine veteran gets letter from VA saying he needs to pay back $100K

Thousands of low-income veterans receiving pension payments from the VA are being told they were overpaid and need to pay it back.

WTSP TAMPA BAY — They served and paid their dues, but now thousands of veterans are being told they still owe the country, having collected a large sum of debt.

Thousands of low-income veterans receiving pension payments from the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) are being hit with letters saying they were overpaid and need to pay back thousands and thousands of dollars. Some say it’s a stressful situation they didn’t realize they were wrapped up in.  

Patrick McFeely is one of the few and the proud. Outside his Sarasota County mobile home waves the eagle, globe and anchor, alongside the flag he signed up to defend.

“My partner passed away and so I decided to move down here,” McFeely said. “And I’ve been loving it down here.”

The U.S. Marine Corps veteran made ends meet with pension payments from the VA and Social Security after he turned 62.

“It was like $2,400 a month,” he explained.

Not a lot, but enough to get by and things were fine until a few weeks ago when McFeely got a letter in the mail.

“Your entitlement to compensation and pension benefits has changed. As a result, you were paid $108,094 more than you’re entitled,” Pat read from the letter from the VA. The department says McFeely was overpaid more than $100,000, and they will withhold money from his pension each month to pay back his debt.

When I called I got the runaround and them saying that it’s because I collect Social Security and they didn’t know it,” McFeely said. “They said I didn’t report it, but what is documented that they know I was collecting Social Security at the time,” McFeely added.

On top of that, the VA notified him nearly 10 years after he began collecting Social Security. Every year, overpayments to McFeely ticked up roughly $10,000, though he had no idea there was any issue.

“I’m hand to mouth. I’m going to be 72 in January so it’s a little bit late to try to collect $108,000 from me,” McFeely added. He reached out to 10 Tampa Bay to figure out what was going on. 

So why did the VA take so long to tell him he was being overpaid?

In a statement, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes tells 10 Tampa Bay that for 11 years, an issue didn’t allow the department to verify the income of veterans.

“Between 2011 and 2022, due to discrepancies in data matching, VA was unable to reliably verify the self-reported federal income of Veterans and survivors receiving pensions,” Hayes said in a statement. “When income verification resumed in July 2022, roughly 9,900 beneficiaries were determined to have higher income levels than self-reported. 

“This resulted in VA pension overpayments which – in some cases – spanned many years.”

The VA provides pension payments to wartime veterans of low income, which are based on self-reported income level. In addition to self-reporting, the department says they have “traditionally verified the self-reported income using data matching.”

McFeely says he didn’t report that he began collecting Social Security because he didn’t know it was necessary and figured if there was an issue he would’ve been notified, considering the entirety of his income comes from federal agencies.

At the bottom of this letter, it says how to manage financial stress. So now they want me to contact the suicide hotline, which is crazy, they’re the ones that put me in this situation.” McFeely added.

The VA says they recognize the hardship and distress this debt may cause so they are pausing the collection of debts until “we determine the path forward,” and because “this is a particularly vulnerable population of Veterans and survivors, VA is pursuing all available options to provide as much pension debt relief as possible.”

“What can be done is putting reforms in place to make sure this doesn’t happen from the beginning,” said U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota. The U.S. Army veteran has grilled the Social Security leadership over their own overpayment issues, documented in a recent “60 Minutes” report.

In these cases, Steube says the federal agencies are the ones at fault. The VA says they will be conducting a review to understand why the data discrepancies happened and why it took so long to address.

“This is a mistake the agencies are making,” Steube said. “I think a lot of people would agree: Why is it on the onus of the service member, who no fault of their own didn’t know and they assumed these payments were correct, and now all the sudden they got to cut a check for $100,000?”

Steube took the words out of McFeely’s mouth, which he says will be hard to feed if the VA expects him to pay what they say he owes.

“I don’t know what to say, but I don’t think this is right, the way they treat people,” McFeely added. “Too much red tape.”

10 Tampa Bay connected McFeely and Steube’s office to see if there’s a quicker path to relief, in the meantime though, the debts won’t be collected.

The VA says they are also putting a pause on establishing debts for other vets who have been overpaid. 

“As legally required, VA established debts for these Veterans and survivors – meaning that VA determined that the amount of the overpayments was due back to VA. There are also approximately 30,000 additional Veterans and survivors who may have pension debts that have not yet been established,” the statement read.

They encourage veterans and survivors to visit their debt management website or call 800-827-0648. They also say they will be reaching out directly to affected veterans to let them know that debt collection has been paused.