Mistaken for dead

LIHUE – Lihue resident Debra Altman could not access her bank account last February – she was dead, according to her bank and the Social Security office.

The retired nurse was locked out of her checking account that housed her Social Security disability payments and tens of thousands of dollars. That same month, she received a letter from her health insurer that read, “To the Estate of Debra Altman: Medicare told us about the death of Debra Altman.”

“I had about $40,000 in my account. I couldn’t pay my bills, so this went on. I thought I was gonna lose my mind,” Altman said.

The health insurance letter instructed Altman to proceed to the Social Security office in Lihue. However, Altman said during the four months without access to her checking account, she didn’t receive help from the Lihue office.

Altman said she and her boyfriend visited the Lihue branch at least 30 times and were directed back and forth from the Social Security office to her bank in Texas. Both establishments said the other had her money.

“I kept calling them back in Texas where the account is – Direct express,” Altman said. “(Direct Express said) Social security has it; Social Security said Direct Express has it. It was this ping-pong thing going on and on and on.”

A representative from the Social Security office could not immediately be reached for comment on Wednesday. Altman still hasn’t received an explanation on how the situation happened or an apology from the office.

Richard Polk, Altman’s boyfriend who supported her through the ordeal, said he “thought she was the most unlucky woman in the world.”

“Thank God we were together, and she has somebody,” Polk said. “I tried to help whatever I could moneywise.”

Altman was running out of money, and her homeowner association threatened to foreclose her apartment. Altman filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy and qualified for a reverse mortgage.

“I would have lost everything hadn’t it been for the reverse mortgage,” Altman said.

Altman was able to pay for her home and her bills; however, she has not heard back from the Social Security office.

“I would call the Lihue office and would get the Honolulu office, and they didn’t know anything about anything,” Altman said. “Not getting any help from Social Security – that somehow I’m supposed to figure it out? I don’t know what their process is. I thought I was gonna have a nervous breakdown. I did everything they asked me to do – now what do I do?”

Altman recalled her worst encounter at the Lihue Office involving a Social Security representative: “I said, ‘You know I don’t have money,’ and he said, ‘Don’t you know someone you can borrow money from?’ And I said, ‘That’s my money. Why should I call someone on the Mainland and ask them for money?’”

Altman said she broke down and cried on the spot.

Frustrated and desperate, Altman turned to Sen. Mazie Hirono for help. She called Hirono’s office in June 2014 and two weeks after her plea, Altman discovered about $40,000 in her checking account.

“If it wasn’t for her, I would be under a palm tree,” Altman said.

Sen. Hirono issued a statement on Wednesday and said she was glad her office was able to help resolve Altman’s problem.

“One of my top priorities as a senator is to assist Hawaii constituents in any way I can,” Hirono said. “Like Debra did, I encourage any Hawaii resident who’s having a problem with a federal agency or needs assistance from the federal government to contact my office.”

Altman said others experiencing the same ordeal should call the senator.

“Write everything down that happened,” Altman said. “I gave the senator my maiden name, my mother’s maiden name, my date of birth, my Social Security number and check to see if I’m deceased.”

Polk said things are better now for Altman, although the Lihue resident is still waiting for an explanation.

“I just think one phone call could have stopped all this,” he said. “One phone call from somebody making sure (Debbie) was alive. That could have ended everything; she wouldn’t have went through this.”

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