Daniel Rea’s mother received a letter in late February from the Air Force offering the service’s condolences for her son’s death and providing documents on how to receive his final retirement checks.
Rea, who is still alive, said he was relieved he was visiting his mother when she opened the letter.
“Mom would have been freaking out,” he said.
The mix up began when Rea, 49, helped his mother earlier that month upload the death certificate of his stepfather into the Department of Veterans Affairs website so she could claim survivor benefits. The VA mistakenly linked the certificate to Rea’s account, declared him dead, and then alerted the Defense Department and his banks of his passing.
Rea, who worked for 21 years in finance for the Air Force and retired as a master sergeant in 2013, credits his swift resurrection to a call that he placed to the veterans hotline created by former President Donald Trump, who promised when the line was established in 2018 that it would give callers the attention and action of the highest levels of government.
Within two weeks, the VA accepted a notarized form from Rea to prove he was alive and reversed the termination of his benefits. However, he said the work continued after that with other government agencies and his banks to get his pay and benefits returned to him. Call agents at the White House hotline expedited his issue and helped resolve it quickly, he said.
During Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, he called the hotline one of his top 10 priorities so veterans could use it to relay their complaints about the VA, which he described as the most corrupt federal agency in need of fixing.
Rea had tried the VA’s standard customer service line. But he said representatives only offered to open a claim for him, which could take months to be reviewed. When he called the White House hotline, the representative helped him file a priority claim immediately.
The phone number for the White House hotline — 855-948-2311 — did not actually reach 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, but rather, a call center in West Virginia. That call center is still operating, along with other call centers spread across the United States, according to the VA.
It’s no longer called the White House hotline. It became known as the VA Hotline in November after the department merged it, along with all the VA’s other numbers, into one line — 800-698-2411 (MyVA411).
“VA added 1-800-MyVA411 as an additional way and easy-to-remember number to reach the VA Hotline in order to increase access and awareness to the services provided by the hotline,” John Boerstler, VA’s chief veterans experience officer, said in a statement.
In a year, the VA answers more than 50 million calls across all its call centers, according to information provided by the department. Based on call data from fiscal 2023, which began Oct. 1, the top five concerns from callers are access or timeliness of care, compensation, coordination of care, community care and medication.
At the time Trump created the White House hotline, the VA had separate numbers for benefits, health care, online account problems and burial eligibility information. In 2020, it merged all these numbers into MyVA411 because customers complained the VA had too many numbers, according to a VA news release from November. The VA calls its hotline the “front door” to the department.
MyVA411 has increased customer satisfaction nearly 4% through post-call surveys, the VA said.
Calling the former White House number now gets veterans directly to the VA call center’s “Option 9,” which is for concerns and recommendations, according to the VA.
Before the merge, the White House line received about 82,300 calls every six months. After the merge, when calls to MyVA411 could be routed to that line through selecting Option 9, call volume jumped to 135,145 calls answered.
The VA said it expects to keep both numbers operational.
When urgent issues such as Rea’s come through, the VA has an average resolution time of 14 days, according to the agency.
Getting his life back became a full-time job for Rea, who left his job with the government in Washington, D.C., during the coronavirus pandemic and has been traveling the country in a trailer. Since he was mistakenly declared dead, the veteran has remained parked at his mother’s home where he’s called about a dozen offices for help, including his congressman Rep. John Carter, R-Texas.
His military retirement and VA disability benefits are his only sources of income, he said. The two agencies drained nearly $40,000 from his bank accounts during the fiasco because they retrieved his pay dating back to the day that Rea’s stepfather died in July. He’s still working with the Defense Department to get all his pay returned.
The White House hotline did help Rea resolve his issue quickly, he said, and he’d like to see the VA and Defense Department set up a special cases team to deal with issues such as his — more so now that he’s learned it affects roughly 540 veterans each year, according to the VA.
“That was my full-time job for almost a month,” he said about getting his benefits returned from all agencies that the VA falsely notified of his death. “I can just imagine a disabled veteran solely relying on this money and not knowing what to do. That’s why I want to get the word out.”