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Vietnam veteran to VA: I'm not dead, restore my benefits

By Howard Altman
Published: November 4, 2015 Updated: November 5, 2015 at 07:21 AM
Mike Rieker says he was contacted by the VA's St. Petersburg Regional Office on Wednesday and told his check would be deposited by Nov. 17. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

Mike Rieker survived the Vietnam War, where he was a Navy seaman serving aboard river boats. It was dangerous work that claimed the lives of 11 of his closest friends.

But Rieker could not survive the Department of Veterans Affairs claims processing system.

When his monthly VA disability check failed to show up in his bank account this week, the 69-year-old Dunedin man called to find out why.

A short while later, a woman from the VA’s Philadelphia office called him back.

“‘Your benefits were suspended because you are deceased,’” she told him.

“Well, wait a minute,” Rieker replied. “I’m talking to you.”

Realizing there was a problem, the woman told him to hold the phone. She came back to let him know that over the summer, a veteran named Michael G. Rieker died in Arizona.

“I’m Michael C. Rieker,” he said.

The woman then told him that in September, his wife filed for burial benefits.

“But I don’t have a wife,” he replied.

The woman filed an inquiry, Rieker said, but it hasn’t helped yet.

Rieker has suffered heart problems, diabetes and other health issues because of his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam, where he served from 1965 to 1969. He is on a fixed income and lives check to check. He said he relies heavily on the $2,906.83 a month he receives from the VA as an 80-percent service-disabled veteran.

“I’m not sure how long I can hold out,” he said. “I’m scared to death. I’ve got credit cards, so I could probably hold out for about two months if I am very careful.”

On Monday, Rieker contacted U.S. Rep. David Jolly, the Indian Shores Republican, who responded this morning with a letter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald. “I know he has been very good working for veterans,” Rieker said.

Even before the letter to McDonald went out, the VA was working on the problem, Rieker said.

After hearing from Rieker on Monday, Jolly’s office fired off a letter that day to VA officials in Washington asking that they investigate Rieker’s case.

This morning, he was contacted by the VA’s St. Petersburg Regional Office.

“I got a call ... telling me the issue has been resolved and that ‘My check is in the mail,”’ so to speak, and should be deposited by the 17th,” Reiker said in an email to The Tampa Tribune. “Apparently he got a call from Washington yesterday and he investigated it and it got corrected.”

Still, Jolly said, Rieker’s story is just the latest of at least six cases where local veterans or their survivors have reported a similar problem.

The VA “works diligently to deliver timely and accurate benefits to veterans and their families,” said Bruce Clisby, a spokesman for the St. Petersburg Regional Office, which handles benefits claims. “However, a small number human coding errors do occur in the millions of transactions successfully completed each year. Additionally, we’ve improved verification of the veteran’s identity when processing ‘notice of death’ transactions.”

Clisby added, “We regret the inconvenience to veterans and reassure them we work quickly to restore their benefits as soon as we are alerted to an issue.”

In Rieker’s case, the problem arose from an error in the processing of a burial application at a Pension Management Center for a veteran with a similar name.

The problem was addressed immediately once the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office was provided notification, Clisby said.

“To my knowledge, records are not maintained to track errors of this nature,” he said.

Veterans who experience a problem like this should call the VA at (800) 827-1000, Clisby said, or their local VA regional office.

Jolly complained to McDonald at the VA that even one case like this is too many.

“One case is outrageous, but six is unacceptable,” Jolly wrote to McDonald. “If these problems are being caused by human error there is clearly an inadequate system of checks and balances. If not human error, the current system is flawed.”

In a statement, Jolly said “this type of error can create financial hardships and it is extremely disconcerting.”

Since his election in 2014, Jolly’s office has handed four other similar cases. Last fall, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, the Palm Harbor Republican, helped a 92-year-old Wesley Chapel woman deal with the same issue, according to Jolly’s letter.

This is the case this year investigated by Jolly’s office in which VA benefits were cut off by mistake as a result of a glitch in death records.

In August 2014, the VA stopped Mary Ann Clough’s spousal benefits, according to Preston Rudie, Jolly’s spokesman.

Clough’s VA spousal benefits at the time totaled a little more than $1,200 a month.

“The VA sent her estate a notice saying Mary Ann had passed away, when she was clearly still alive,” Rudie said.

Clough wrote Jolly a Christmas card mentioning the problem. Jolly opened it in January.

“After reading it, staff immediately reached out to Mary Ann and within three weeks the problem was solved and Many Ann’s back benefits were restored,” Rudie said. “She received more than $6,000 in back benefits.”

In February, Jolly wrote McDonald a letter seeking answers about Clough’s case. He also raised the issue when McDonald testified before the Military Construction-Veterans Affairs Appropriations subcommittee in March.

Meantime, Riker, the Dunedin veteran, has learned more about Michael George Rieker, who died June 13, according to an obituary posted online by the Silver Creek Mortuary in Arizona.

An Army veteran who was honorably discharged in 1972, Michael George Rieker was a swap meet enthusiast who was killed in an automobile wreck while leaving a swap meet in the town of Snowflake.

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