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Fairborn vet one of thousands pushed into debt by VA mistake

Veteran Rodger Zink felt betrayed by his own government when he found out in early 2017 that he owed the Department of Veterans Affairs around $15,000 even after he told the agency months earlier that he thought he was receiving benefits he shouldn’t be.

Zink, 35, of Fairborn, is one of hundreds of thousands of veterans who have fallen into debt due to mistakes by the VA, the very agency designated to help them once they leave the armed forces. Veterans often rely on their VA benefits to pay for daily needs such as health care and house payments, so a sudden change can throw their lives into chaos, said Seth Gordon, director of the Veteran and Military Center at Wright State.

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“I literally don’t know anybody that’s like: ‘Sure I’ll just give you something like $20,000 back,’” Gordon said. “That’s not something almost anyone can do.”

Zink, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, was discharged from the National Guard in 2011 for a brain injury and was later placed back on active duty to get treatment for a brain tumor. Despite Zink’s concerned phone calls to the VA, the agency kept paying him around $3,300 a month in disability.

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“So the guy with brain damage is trying to straighten the VA out,” he joked.

Luckily, Zink saved $5,000 of the close to $15,000 he had been overpaid. He paid that back immediately and then began making $500-a-month payments.

Then in December 2017 a payment didn’t go through even though Zink said he had plenty of money in his bank account. The VA sent the remaining $8,000 or so to collection, which sunk Zink’s credit score.

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“All they had to do was call me,” he said. “I’m the one that identified the problem. I’m the one that took proactive steps and then they go ahead and stab me in the back after I paid half of it back.”

Now, Zink is one of several Ohio veterans working with U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s office to make sure what happened to him never happens to anyone else.

Just this week, the U.S. Senate passed Brown’s amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Act which would hold the VA more accountable for over-payments. If it becomes law, it would require the VA to track over-payments to veterans, verify whether the agency is at fault and whether the over-payments are disputed by a veteran.

The amendment is part of a larger piece of legislation called the Veterans’ Debt Fairness Act being sponsored by Brown.

The Story So Far

• Then: Reports emerged last year the the VA was overpaying benefits to veterans. The VA demanded vets repay it, sending some into debt.

• Now: The U.S. Senate recently passed an amendment and if it becomes law it would require the VA to track over-payments, among other measures to increase accountability.

• Next: Sen. Sherrod Brown is pushing the Veterans’ Debt Fairness Act in congress that would only allow the VA to collect debts that occur due to fraud or an error on the part of veterans.

The bipartisan bill would only allow the VA to collect on debts that occur due to an error or fraud on the part of veterans and their beneficiary. It would also make it so the VA can only deduct up to 25 percent from a veteran’s monthly payment to recoup debt and would prevent the VA from collecting debts incurred more than five years earlier, according to Brown’s office.

“Our veterans sacrifice so much already to serve our country,” Brown said in a prepared statement. “They shouldn’t be paying for the mistakes of the department that’s supposed to serve them. This amendment is a step in the right direction to address an issue that impacts so many veterans in Ohio and across the country.”

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Brown’s legislation was inspired by veteran James Powers from Massillon, Ohio, who like Zink became a victim of debt he didn’t think he was incurring.

The over-payments are just the latest in a long list of problems to plague the VA in recent years.

Long wait times became the subject of a 2014 scandal and in March of this year President Donald Trump fired VA secretary David Shulkin. Trump then nominated his personal physician Ronny Jackson who later withdrew his name from consideration.

While the VA “does an awful lot of good” it lacks accountability, Wright State’s Gordon said. The department is prone to problems, Gordon said, because of its outdated technology, bad business practices and frequent paperwork problems.

The VA typically does not publicly comment on pending legislation and Dayton VA spokesman Ted Froats declined to comment on it Tuesday.

Zink hopes Brown’s bill can fix those problems so future vets don’t end up owing the government thousands of dollars like he now does. Instead, it’s become a financial burden that Zink said could have been resolved right away if he had just been able to get someone on the phone at the VA who understood his concerns rather than dismissing them until it was too late.

“It just created a massive situation that was totally unnecessary,” Zink said. “It’s so preventable that it just infuriates me.”

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