Veterans need protection from abuse in benefits
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
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
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
• 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.
The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki
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.
Chairman, Veterans’ Affairs Committee
Ranking Member, Veterans’ Affairs Committee
Chairman, Budget Committee
Chairman, Special Committee on Aging
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