Grimm calls on city to straighten out mess
By Paula Katinas
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Widows and widowers of military veterans all across the city are in danger of being denied survivor’s benefits by the US Department of Veterans Affairs because of a simple and fixable paperwork snafu, according to US Rep. Michael Grimm.
The problem, according to Grimm, is that the Dept. of Veterans Affairs requires a death certificate to list the exact cause of death to ensure that the veteran died of a service-related illness or injury so that the surviving spouse can qualify for benefits.
New York does not display a cause of death on death certificates unless explicitly requested to do so, Grimm said. The standard death certificate usually lists natural causes or homicide as the cause of death. There is a longer form of a death certificate that contains more detailed information. But most widows and widowers aren’t armed with this information. As a result of the lack of knowledge, they submit the standard death certificate to the VA and are denied the benefits, the congressman said.
Flanked by two Bay Ridge women whose late husbands served in wars and who had to fight tooth and nail to get the survivors benefits to which they were entitled, Grimm held a press conference in his Brooklyn district office on Tuesday to call on the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to help rectify the situation.
“We are here to try to right a wrong and prevent others from having to go through what these women went through,” Grimm said, as he sat at a conference table with Barbara Falcone and Miranda Valenti. The death certificate issued by the city’s Dept. of Health does not list the cause of death on the first page and the first page is usually all that is sent out, Grimm said. “It’s extremely difficult to get Page 2 or the long form from New York City,” he said.
“It took two, two-and-a-half years for them to get their benefits as widows. It sounds so simple, this snafu, but people are going without getting their benefits. This is money they need to live on,” he said.
Falcone and Valenti both lost their husbands in 2011. Falcone’s husband, James, a cab driver, had served in the Vietnam War. He died of complications from exposure to Agent Orange, she said. He was 63 years old. Valenti’s husband John, a private in the US Army, did several tours of duty in Afghanistan. He developed a respiratory illness while on active duty and was receiving disability benefits after he returned home to Bay Ridge. He died of a heart attack.
Both women came to Grimm for help after getting a runaround from the VA. The congressman’s office was able to secure the benefits for both women. They began receiving checks late last year.
“The VA would not accept the death certificate I sent them. They kept telling me I wasn’t entitled to anything,” Falcone said. “I didn’t understand why. If not for the congressman's office, I wouldn't have gotten my benefits. My husband fought for this country.”
Valenti had a similar experience. “I applied right after my husband passed away. I was denied. They said they needed the cause of death, that the death was military related,” she said.
“It was so stressful just dealing with it,” Valenti added.
Because the surviving spouse is often unaware of the fact that the death certificate also has a long form, the spouse doesn’t think to request it, Grimm said.
He called on the Dept. of Health to make it a standard practice to issue the more detailed death certificate in cases where the deceased is a military veteran.
“I don’t think you need to do this legislatively. It’s simple enough to fix,” Grimm said.
“These are the benefits they need to survive. Their husbands earned them,” he added.
In a statement sent to the Brooklyn Eagle, the Dept. of Health indicated a willingness to cooperate. "We are reviewing our procedures to evaluate if there is a way to make it simpler for families of veterans to receive the benefits to which they are entitled," the statement reads.