Now, let me slip on my Arbiter robe and go through DeFillippo’s complaint:

The articles have been inaccurate and irresponsible because they fail to point out that beneficiaries have always been able to get all of their money when they want it by using our Alliance Account. Prudential does not withhold a penny of the money that belongs to beneficiaries. In fact, we pay interest. This information is clearly explained in the first letter sent to beneficiaries. Bloomberg has knowingly withheld these facts (emphasis added) and, as a result, has done the beneficiaries of our fallen servicemembers a great disservice.

The first story appeared on the Bloomberg wire July 28, 2010, under the headline: “Fallen Soldiers’ Families Denied Cash as Insurers Profit.” (Indeed, I think the headline was too strong, as I’ll explain below.)

The story focuses on a bereaved mother, Cindy Lohman. After her 24-year-old son Ryan was killed by a bomb in Afghanistan, she received a letter from Prudential saying, according to the story, “that the full amount of her payout would be placed in a convenient interest-bearing account, allowing her time to decide how to use the benefit.”
But then, she says, two retailers rejected the insurance company’s drafts when she tried to use them, and later she learned the account wasn’t FDIC-insured.
The story effectively lays out her perspective and the problems with the accounts. But it also quotes DeFillippo giving the company’s view:

“For some families, the account is the difference between earning interest on a large amount of money and letting it sit idle,” he says.

”We fully and regularly disclose the nature and terms of the account to account holders,” DeFillippo says. “We make it clear that the money can be withdrawn at any time by simply writing a draft.”
By quoting DeFillippo, Bloomberg makes it clear that beneficiaries could get their money using the drafts and that they were paid interest. So the text of the story provides that information, rather than withholding it. Indeed, the fact that it was so clear that beneficiaries could get their funds via the drafts is why I think the phrase in the headline—“denied cash”—crossed the line (and was not fair). In contrast, and tellingly, the story never uses that phrase.


Reading the story, it is clear that beneficiaries could get their hands on the lump sum, but not without going to extra trouble—writing a draft for the total amount and taking it to a bank. According to a subsequent Wall Street Journal story on the accounts, a banking consultant said that drafts can sometimes take two to three days longer to clear than checks. And, crucially, as the story makes clear, beneficiaries and even VA officials, often didn’t understand the terms of the deal.

“Delayed cash” isn’t as sexy as “denied cash.” A better headline might have been, “Fallen Soldiers’ Families Snared in Red Tape as Insurers Profit,” or some such.

Subsequent decisions by the VA to require Prudential to improve disclosure underscore that the process wasn’t as clear as it should have been. In dealing with the recently bereaved, you probably want to err on the side of too much disclosure rather than too little. It is worth noting that confusion here would tend to benefit Prudential.

The other problem with the program, which Bloomberg properly flags, is that it required the bereaved to opt out of the “checkbook” alternative. And, as every marketer knows, a program that requires action to get out of means that a higher percentage of participants will stay in the program. On September 14, the VA said that it “will provide better clarity of payment options by using new document that asks the beneficiary to choose one payment option, including a lump sum check, or a lump sum Alliance Account (retained asset account) that allows beneficiaries the option to immediately write a check for the entire payment or any lesser amount.”

So, Bloomberg did some good here.

The legal status

Martha M. Hamilton , CJR's Audit Arbiter, explores complaints about fairness, accuracy, and other issues arising from business-news stories. Send possible story ideas her way at the link on her name. A former reporter, editor, and columnist at The Washington Post, she is a writer and editor for PolitiFact.com.