Living, breathing veteran won't let red tape kill him

Arundel man battles to get VA to fix error

May 19, 2000|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Raymond C. Dempsey served in the Navy during World War II and survived.

Two years ago, he had an emergency triple bypass and survived.

What ultimately brought on his reported demise turned out to a bureaucratic error that the 77-year-old Shady Side retiree is desperately trying to fix.

In February, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sent Dempsey's family a letter expressing condolences on his death. It also notified them that his monthly $98 benefit payments would end. Since then, Dempsey has called VA offices in St. Paul, Minn., Baltimore and Washington many times, but the error stands, and he isn't getting his money.

"I thought that the VA was there to help veterans whenever there is a problem, but all I get when I call them is, `It takes time. It takes time,'" said Dempsey, who served as a machinist in Pearl Harbor and Guam for the Navy from 1942 to 1945. "It's aggravating. I just don't want to die before it's taken care of."

Jim Benson, a VA spokesman in Washington, emphasized yesterday that Dempsey's case is rare.

"We have over 3 million veterans on our rolls," Benson said. "If we did this very often, we certainly would not encourage faith in our system."

Dempsey's problem started with a letter he received Feb. 8 that began, "We are sorry to learn of the death of Raymond C. Dempsey and wish to express our deepest sympathy."

"At first, I thought it was a joke," said the south Anne Arundel County resident. "Then I figured I would call the number on the letter and just let them know I wasn't dead."

But the 800 number on the letter led him to a VA office in St. Paul, Minn., which referred him to a Baltimore branch office, where a benefits counselor asked him his date of birth and social security number. Dempsey said the counselor told him he would notify the VA's main office in Washington and promised to call Dempsey the next day with an update.

Three weeks went by with no call and no benefits. Dempsey called the Baltimore office again. A man took down his information and said, "You'll hear back from us."

By mid-April, there was still no call, still no money. Dempsey called the Baltimore office and spoke to another counselor who said she would have her supervisor send a letter to the VA office in St. Louis to resurrect Dempsey.

On April 29, Dempsey received another shocker in the mail -- a notice from Crestar Bank that began, "To Estate of Raymond C. Dempsey," announcing that the U.S. Treasury Department was requesting the return of his February VA benefits that had been deposited in his account before the government had learned of his "death."

"The Treasury is requesting that the direct deposit be returned due to the death of the beneficiary on 01/28/00," the letter said. "Crestar is required under government regulations to comply with this request."

Dempsey was livid.

"I'm taking high blood pressure medication, and this isn't helping," he said.

"I don't depend on it, but if I'm entitled to it, I'd like to have it," he said of the payments.

Crestar Bank swiftly corrected the mistake in its files after Dempsey went to its Annapolis branch office to prove he was alive. A bank manager immediately notified its Richmond, Va., headquarters, which sent a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department the next day explaining that Dempsey was not dead and the bank would not return the $98.

"We felt bad for Mr. Dempsey and we moved quickly on this," said Steve Morawitz, a Crestar Bank spokesman. He said the Treasury Department has not responded to Crestar's letter.

This week, Dempsey tried talking with the Baltimore VA office again. A counselor told him the letter about his case should have been sent to Washington, not St. Louis. The man said he would take care of it and get back to Dempsey in seven to 10 days. Dempsey is not optimistic the call will come.

Dempsey is not alone in his predicament. In 1998, the VA declared a New Jersey man "dead" and instructed his bank to refund $797 in benefits.

New Jersey VA officials at the time said erroneous death reports occur about twice a year in the state, where 59,000 veterans reside. The error was corrected within a month.

"I would not expect that that would be the normal response time," Benson said of Dempsey's three-month battle. Dempsey has "certainly got evidence of being alive and well," he said.

Dempsey suspects the mix-up occurred after his wife, Lucy, died in November and was buried in Maryland Veterans Cemetery in Cheltenham.

"I think they have to fill out a form for her to be buried there and maybe someone put in my name by mistake," he said. "When I die I want to be buried next to her, and if this isn't fixed, they might not want to do it, because they can't bury me twice."

A Baltimore VA office counselor referred calls yesterday morning on Dempsey's case to supervisor Steve Riddle, who didn't return the phone call.

Another worker looked up Dempsey's case and said the office had written a report and sent it to the Washington office Tuesday.

"They couldn't bring him back to life in this office because his file is not located here," the employee said.

In Washington, Benson spent yesterday afternoon hunting for information on Dempsey. He called about 4:30 p.m., apologizing profusely for not being able to find out how the mistake occurred and whether it had been corrected.

"The computer database is in Austin, Texas," he said.

Benson said he would have to call back with an update today.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.