This Vietnam Vet Lost His Social Security Payments Because the Feds Thought He's in Jail. He's Not. - NECN
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This Vietnam Vet Lost His Social Security Payments Because the Feds Thought He's in Jail. He's Not.

After his Social Security payments stopped, a Rockland man who served the country struggles to prove he is not serving time behind bars

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    Veteran's Social Security Payments Stop in Prison Snafu

    Vietnam veteran Billy Brown stopped getting his Social Security payments because authorities thought he was in jail. (Published Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019)

    Billy Brown sat in the living room of the Rockland home he's owned for four decades and stared into a TV news camera.

    "Let's set the record straight. Are you in prison right now?" I asked.

    Brown laughed and responded, "No, I am not. I've never been in prison."

    Case closed, right? Brown only wishes it was that easy to get someone with the federal government to listen.

    "Every time I call, I get nowhere," Brown explained.

    Those calls were to the Social Security Administration, which notified the Marine veteran months ago that it stopping paying his retirement benefits.

    The reason? According to the federal agency, Brown was a criminal and should not have been receiving the monthly checks in the mail.

    "We learned that you are imprisoned for the conviction of a crime," read a letter the 70-year-old shared with us.

    It was an obvious case of mistaken identity and would be easy to correct, Brown had assumed.

    After all, he had a good alibi. His wife, Paula, confirmed her husband lived at the home throughout their 49-year marriage, with no prolonged stints in jail.

    "He was here the entire time," she told us with a laugh.

    Brown got documentation from the Rockland Police Department that verified his clean criminal record.

    He also asked for a letter of support from St. Bridget Parish in Abington, where he is still faithfully showing up for work after 33 consecutive years.

    "I'd do anything for Billy," business manager Dennis Leonard told us. "I just don't understand it. It's ridiculous they can't figure it out."

    As if the suspended payments weren't bad enough, the bureaucratic debacle started affecting Brown's health. The Medicare program denied coverage for his most recent doctor's visit because of the mix-up.

    "This is unfair," Brown said. "I did nothing to nobody. Just give me my checks. And let me have my Medicare. Let me live my life. Not some criminal's life."

    Here's the problem: his full name is William Brown. As it turns out, there is an inmate at the Pondville Correctional Center in Norfolk with a very similar name: Willie Brown.

    The incarcerated Brown has a lengthy criminal record and was recently convicted for electronics thefts on the Cape, according to records the NBC10 Boston Investigators reviewed.

    Besides the similar name, the two strangers also share the same month and year of birth.

    When Brown could not get the situation resolved on his own, his wife convinced him to share the story with NBC10 Boston during our recent "Talk to Ten" event.

    "She said you gotta call these people. You gotta call these people," Brown recalled. "After being married for 49 years, you learn you do what she tells you to do!"

    When we sat with the couple at their kitchen table, it was clear the emotional burden was taking its toll. More than the money, Paula worried about the implications to her husband's health care.

    NBC10 Boston contacted the regional branch of the Social Security Administration (SSA) to help resolve the issue. What Brown couldn't accomplish after months of persistence was remedied within 24 hours.

    After getting permission to discuss Brown's case, regional spokesman Steve Richardson told us the problem was caused by an administrative error in a local office.

    Whenever SSA gets notification about suspending benefit payments to an inmate, a second level of review should occur to confirm all the identifying information matches up, Richardson explained.

    For whatever reason, the local office failed to do a proper or timely review of Brown's case.

    "We identified and corrected the issue that affected Mr. Brown's benefit," Richardson said. "We have been in contact with him and addressed his concerns. We apologize for any inconvenience it has caused."

    When asked how often the specific issue surfaces, Richardson — who's been with the agency for 38 years — told us he believes it's rare.

    NBC10 Boston filed a public records request to see if SSA tracks instances or keeps data that would indicate how common the problem is. We are awaiting that response.

    Now that his dilemma is over, Brown has expressed gratitude for helping correct the mistake.

    But reflecting on the ordeal in his living room, the Marine veteran simply shook his head, exasperated he could not cut through the bureaucratic red tape on his own.

    "No one except NBC10 Boston has come to help me," he said. "They just don't care. I wish someone did care."

    When asked if it was tough to say that, considering he served the country for two tours of duty in Vietnam, Brown grew emotional.

    "Kind of eats in your craw. I have three sons who served the country, too. We aren't asking for something we don't deserve," Brown trailed off as his eyes welled with tears.

    Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@nbcuni.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.