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‘Dead’ man alive and well

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Declaration from VA results in loss of benefits

By Nancy Kennedy

INVERNESS — One day last week, Richard Miller went out to his mailbox and discovered he had died.
 

A letter from his car insurance company addressed to “the family of Richard Miller” offered sincere condolences and said the Social Security Administration had notified them that Miller had died Nov. 7, 2011.
Except, as Miller noted Thursday, he hadn’t died.
 

“I’m still on the right side of the dirt,” he said. “I thought maybe it was just a little goof-up with the insurance company and I’d call and they’d clear it up.”
 

But then the next day he got a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs saying they had terminated his monthly disability benefits effective Nov. 1.
 

That’s when the little goof-up became a huge nightmare.
Miller, 58, a disabled Vietnam War Army veteran, depends on the $1,021 he receives each month. Without it, he fears he would quickly become homeless, he said.
 

Charles Fettes, Citrus County’s veteran services officer, said erroneously being declared dead is not uncommon, although that doesn’t make it any less traumatic for the “dead” person who depends on a monthly benefits check, not to mention having to deal with the various government agencies to become alive again.
 

An August 2011 report from CNNMoney revealed that of the approximately 2.8 million deaths reported to the Social Security Administration each year, about 14,000 — one in 200 deaths — are incorrectly entered into the agency’s Death Master File. That file contains the Social Security numbers, names, birth dates, death dates, ZIP codes and last-known addresses of more than 87 million deceased Americans.
 

“We informed the VA that he was alive, but it didn’t start with the VA,” Fettes said. “It starts with Social Security.”
 

However, as Miller said, “When I called Social Security, they said the VA reported my death to them, and the VA says Social Security reported it to them.”
 

Not only did the VA stop his monthly payment, but now they’re saying he has to pay back the money he received in the months following his supposed death.
 

“They’re the ones that said I’m dead, yet I have to pay them back?” he said.
As of Thursday, after countless calls to the VA and being put on hold and transferred from one person to another, plus a trip to Ocala to the branch office of Social Security, Miller said he thinks he may be alive again, although he won’t know for sure until the first of the month when he normally gets a check.
 

And he still doesn’t know if the VA will continue to demand he pay the money back from the months of his death. There’s also a chance he may have to reapply for his benefits — start all over just because he died.
 

“I can laugh about it now,” Miller said, “but for a solid week I was crying. Now the government tells me I should be confident that this is taken care of, but with everything I’ve been through with the VA (regarding this and other issues), I’ll believe it when I see it.”