Friday, August 30, 2013

Exclusive: Senators Question the Ethics and Expertise of VA Advisers

Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Bernie Sanders
The legal and financial experts accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs to advise America’s veterans seeking benefits are not always qualified or trustworthy, a bipartisan group of senators concluded today.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chair of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and other high-profile lawmakers said this morning they are “deeply troubled” by the VA’s poor oversight of the thousands of private financial planners, lawyers, insurance agents and others who advise veterans applying for benefits.

The senators, who are calling for immediate changes, cited a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that called out the VA for loosely enforcing its own vague rules on accrediting these advisers. The GAO, a nonpartisan congressional agency that audits federal programs, also criticized VA for leaving itself vulnerable to abuses and for keeping veterans in the dark about their rights.

The GAO report was addressed in a strongly worded letter sent today to Secretary Eric Shinseki today from Sanders, Richard Burr (R-N.C). Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

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

The lawmakers added that the accreditation procedures should be strengthened to protect veterans from corrupt advisers among the 20,000 approved by the VA. They also urged the department to do a better job letting veterans know how to report abuses.

Problems with the accreditation program are compounded by a lack of staff and inadequate technology, the senators said.

The latest GAO report is part of an investigation that found lax oversight and unclear rules made the VA ripe for abuse. That report found that some firms overcharge veterans for services or sell financial products that end up limiting veteran’s access to the benefits they've earned.

The VA acknowledged in writing that more staff is needed to oversee the program, but said there are budgetary constraints. VA officials also expressed typical reluctance to toughen the application procedures to approve financial planners and legal advisers, saying this could have a “chilling effect” on getting attorneys to help veterans.
VA officials sounded the familiar refrain that they would try to better inform advisers about veterans’ benefits. 

Veterans should do all you can to learn about the qualifications of the experts you seek to advise you. Check their backgrounds, do Google searches and ask as many questions as you can. Established law firms like Bergmann & Moore, which are staffed by veterans and which solely represent veterans with disability claims, typically get the highest marks from veterans.

To read the GAO report, click here. To read the senators’ letter to the VA secretary, click here

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