CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — UPDATE: We told you about a local widow, Wanda Arnold, who was struggling to get her survivor benefits after her husband died.
She lost her husband Ray, to complications from COVID-19 about three months ago.
The VA asked Arnold to add contributing factors that are military service-related to Ray's death certificate so she can qualify for survivor benefits.
We've got some good news.
Arnold says she got the death certificate amended and is now eligible for benefits.
We'd like to thank hospice specialist Matthew Carr for his work in helping her get what she needed.
Wanda Arnold sifts through old photos of her husband to remember the good times, and what might have been. They were going to enjoy retirement together, but that was cut short.
Ray Arnold suddenly died in August at age 74, leaving his grieving wife wondering about her future alone.
As a surviving spouse of a military veteran — Ray served in the Vietnam War from 1967-'69 — Wanda Arnold is concerned about money and her benefits to help pay for her home care and other living expenses.
Wanda said her husband entered the hospital three months ago. She remembers — it was a Thursday. He was tested for COVID-19 when he was admitted, and was negative.
Ray then underwent open-heart surgery. It was successful, at first. The doctor gave Wanda the good news.
"He came into the waiting room told us how good Ray did," recalled Wanda. "It's all going to be so super now."
Then, Ray's condition took a turn for the worse.
"He never opened his eyes again," Wanda said. "And they said he had COVID."
At first, Wanda was told by nurses her husband died from a stroke, and that his heart had stopped beating.
But a few weeks later, Ray Arnold's death certificate, dated August 2, showed COVID-19 as the official, or primary, cause of death.
The VA says 'No, you had COVID.' We can't do anything for you. COVID is not covered.
When Wanda tried to collect survivor's benefits, she was denied because the death certificate did not include contributing factors such as diabetes and heart disease, illnesses that were service-related that Ray was being treated for by the VA.
The VA denied Wanda's claim based on this law, which states that if COVID-19 is listed as the primary factor of a veteran's death a survivor won't receive benefits.
"The VA says 'No, you had COVID,' " Wanda said. "We can't do anything for you. COVID is not covered."
Wanda received an email from the Texas Veterans Commission dated Oct. 12. It asked if she can get other contributing factors of death included on her husband's death certificate, in order to possibly qualify for survivor's benefits.
It was a fight this homebound veteran's widow would begin alone, but it wouldn't stay that way.
KRIS 6 took Wanda's case to the Texas Veterans Commission and spoke with claims supervisor Red Barrera. She said every case is unique. And while she couldn't talk specifically about the Arnold's case, she said asking for contributing factors of death that can be service-related offers a better chance for the survivor to receive VA benefits.
Senior hospice specialist Mathew Carr with Kindred Hospice found out that KRIS 6 News was working on this story. He stepped in to help.
"I think it (marking only COVID on the death certificate) might have just been something out of convenience," he said. "It was the shiny object in the room. I believe as probably how this happens. You know there's a there's a lot of documentation that goes into doctors putting diagnosis on a death certificate."
Carr contacted Wanda, and is now making progress in having contributing factors added to the death certificate in order for her to eventually get her survivor benefits.
Congress also is now working to resolve this issue. Pending legislation S. 89, titled the Ensuring Survivor Benefits During COVID-19 Act of 2021, could help thousands of family members gain access to VA benefits.
The Senate has approved it. The bill was last reported stalled in the House. KRIS 6 News reached out to U.S. Congressman Michael Cloud (R-Dist. 27). We have not received word yet on what is stalling that legislation.
KRIS 6 News also contacted Corpus Christi Medical Center to check if the hospital system can take extra steps to ensure that contributing factors are included on the death certificates of deceased veterans who may have contracted COVID-19. Here's their response. "Corpus Christi Medical Center is committed to provide high-quality care and maintaining the privacy of our patients. We are required by state and federal laws to safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of our patients."
In the meantime, there are a number of resources for veterans and their families related to benefits and pensions:
- If you're the surviving spouse, child, or parent of a service member who died in the line of duty, or the survivor of a veteran who died from a service-related injury or illness, you may be able to get a tax-free monetary benefit called VA Dependency and Indemnity Compensation (VA DIC). Find out if you can get VA benefits or compensation.