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Queens Chronicle

Gillibrand aids war veteran in debt snafu

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Posted: Thursday, July 15, 2010 12:00 am

A Middle Village Army veteran recently exhaled a sigh of relief after learning he no longer owed tens of thousands of dollars to the federal government due to a Department of Veterans Affairs accounting error.

At the urging of his daughter, Jennifer, and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), the VA agreed to waive the $24,000 debt it had said Korean War combat veteran Anthony Novak owed following several years of pension overpayments.

“This is such a huge weight lifted, I couldn’t be happier,” Novak said in a statement. “It was simply impossible for me to pay this debt. I thank Senator Gillibrand for all her help.”

The VA terminated Novak’s pension in 2009 and sent letters, complete with payment forms attached, claiming he owed the money. Novak is handicapped and suffers from several ailments, including major heart surgery, treatment for throat, bladder and skin cancer, including having his voicebox replaced with a speaking apparatus. He feared he’d lose his vital VA health benefits.

“I’m laughing [at the letters] because that’s a joke,” Jennifer Novak told the Chronicle this week. “He’s 75 years old — where would he have that kind of money laying around?”

Jennifer Novak “knew there was nothing we could do,” so she wrote a letter to Gillibrand’s office about six months ago asking for help. After Gillibrand’s inquiry, the VA said it realized that in 2007, Novak’s Social Security payments had increased to roughly $1,000 per month between 2001 and 2007, which exceeded the VA’s monthly income cap to qualify for its roughly $800 per month pension. The VA also realized it had failed to decrease his monthly pension during the seven-year period, so in order to recoup, it cut off payments to Novak and hit him with the retroactive debt.

Gillibrand cited Novak’s poor health and financial constraints in asking the VA to reconsider the debt, which it did.

According to Gillibrand, the VA has instituted a process of regularly checking both veterans’ Social Security benefits and their VA pensions to ensure they are not wrongfully overpaid and do not end up with an exorbitant amount of debt.

“It is unfair to punish our veterans, levying debt that would strip them of their basic standard of living,” Gillibrand said.

Jennifer Novak thanked the state’s junior senator for her efforts, and reminded those in similar situations that aid is available.

“Writing letters does help,” she said.

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