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Veterans need protection from abuse in benefits claims process

Senate committee on aging chairman says ‘has to be fixed right away

Sept. 5, 2013 - Some individuals approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans - many of them senior citizens - applying for benefits may be doing them more harm than good, congressional investigators have found. The finding comes in a new report released last week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that had been requested by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Chairman, Senate Special Committee on Aging, and other lawmakers last year.

“This has to be fixed right away,” Nelson said today.

Nelson and fellow Sens. Patty Murray (D-WA), Richard Burr (R-NC) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) asked the GAO – the nonpartisan research arm of Congress - to examine the VA’s Aid & Attendance program after the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging held a hearing last year that focused on veterans who needed help getting pension benefits. Nelson earlier this year became chairman of that committee.

 

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Today, Nelson and the three other lawmakers wrote a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, urging the agency to take more steps to protect veterans.

“We believe there are immediate steps VA must take in order to improve the accreditation program,” the lawmakers wrote.

When veterans want help with their benefits claims, the VA directs them to a list of "accredited" individuals who can represent them and help them navigate the often-complex process.

But the VA does not sufficiently ensure that veterans and their families are protected against potential abuses.  "We and others have found instances in which individuals that purport to help veterans may actually be harming them,” the GAO said in its report.

Among the GAO's findings:

• The VA relies on limited, self-reported information to determine whether applicants have a criminal history or their character could be called into question.

• Some representatives had histories of bankruptcies or liens, and a number of other issues that would raise concern.

• Accredited representatives may not have adequate program knowledge to effectively assist clients with their claims.

In a nutshell, the VA provides a list of accredited representatives, most of whom are lawyers, who are available to help veterans prepare, present, and prosecute claims.

To be listed as “accredited” an individual must attest to having good moral character.  But the VA doesn't fully verify the background information that applicants submit, the GAO found.

To apply, one either has to be a lawyer or demonstrate they are otherwise knowledgeable about veterans benefits issues by passing a 25-question multiple-choice exam.

Click here to the complete GAO report.

Following is the lawmakers’ letter to Shinseki:

August 30, 2013

The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki
Secretary
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC  20420

Dear Secretary Shinseki,

We are writing to express our concern about the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) findings in VA Benefits: Improvements Needed to Ensure Claimants Receive Appropriate Representation, August 2013, and the state of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) accreditation program. 

In our continuing effort to address concerns related to individuals and organizations marketing financial planning services and products to veterans to enable them to qualify for pension benefits, we asked GAO to examine VA’s accreditation program.  We are deeply troubled by the findings indicating weaknesses in the accreditation program, which may prevent VA from ensuring that veterans are served by knowledgeable, qualified, and trustworthy representatives. 

We believe there are immediate steps VA must take in order to improve the accreditation program.   First, VA should inform veterans and other VA claimants about the current state of VA’s accreditation program, including the weaknesses identified in GAO’s report.  Veterans and their families need to understand that, because of those deficiencies, due diligence is required even when selecting an accredited representative. VA should also take steps to highlight that VA accreditation would never imply that an individual should be trusted to provide financial planning services.

VA must also develop clear policies and supportive action plans to ensure successful implementation of policies needed to correct the deficiencies identified by GAO.  For example, a clear definition of the requirement that an accredited individual have “good moral character” would be useful, especially if integrated into the audits and background checks that VA, in response to the GAO investigation, indicated it will implement for attorneys and agents applying for accreditation.  Additionally, VA must identify a clear mechanism by which stakeholders can lodge complaints about accredited representatives allegedly engaging in improper behavior.  This complaint system needs to be supported by written policies to ensure an appropriate series of actions are taken to respond to, monitor, and follow-up on complaints. 

Based on GAO’s findings, it also appears that a lack of staff dedicated to these efforts and appropriate technology are compounding the problems with the accreditation program.  In that regard, VA should consider integrating the accreditation process into the electronic claims system.  This could automate the process where possible, potentially reducing staffing burdens and complementing the ongoing efforts to transform the claims system.   

We look forward to your response and to working with you to make this program function as intended. 

Sincerely,

Bernard Sanders
Chairman, Veterans’ Affairs Committee

Richard Burr
Ranking Member, Veterans’ Affairs Committee

Patty Murray
Chairman, Budget Committee

Bill Nelson
Chairman, Special Committee on Aging

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