After the Civil War, veterans were entitled to a disability benefits system not unlike the one we have today. During that time, unaccredited and unethical “claims agents” committed so much fraud that, in 1879, the Commissioner of Pensions declared that more than 10% of pension expenditures were due to fraud. This led to legislation that limited the amount a representative can charge in connection with veteran’s benefits to a mere $10. Understandably, very few accredited representatives jumped into this field of law.
That all changed in the late 20th century when Congress created the current system of accreditation for attorneys and representatives while regulating the fees that may be charged for that service.
As they say, however, history repeats itself. In the wake of the 2006 amendment to 38 U.S.C. § 5905, which removed criminal penalties for those unaccredited actors illegally pursuing veteran’s benefits claims, numerous for-profit companies have popped up, happy to charge illegal and exorbitant fees.
And what service do these companies provide, in exchange for a fee that can be as much as 7x the monthly increase they “obtain” for the veteran? At best, nothing. At worst, they set veterans up with their own “doctors,” willing to rubber-stamp whatever will get the veteran the highest rating. And because these outfits do not legally represent the veteran, it is the veteran who is on the hook if and when this fraud is uncovered.
If that’s not bad enough, it is impossible for these companies to provide competent representation and advice because they do not have access to a veteran’s claims file. Yet, in a June 5th op-ed, Veteran Benefits Guide claimed that it achieves the same results as attorneys — an impossible boast, considering that unaccredited coaches cannot represent claimants in connection with a supplemental claim, higher level review, at the Board of Veterans Appeals, or the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.
Moreover, it completely ignores the fact that an accredited representative who does the exact same work as these companies is prohibited from charging a single cent.
Inaccurately, they continue, alleging that attorneys are “incentivized to drag out appeals.” This is entirely and wholly untrue. First, attorneys must be accredited to represent veterans for disability benefits.
Second, attorneys have stringent ethical obligations — both to the client and to the VA. These obligations are enforced by numerous entities, including state bars, the bar of the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the VA’s Office of General Counsel. One should ask themselves why outfits like Veterans Guardian and the like do not want to be held to the same regulatory and ethical standards as accredited representatives.
These unaccredited agents are regulated only by their obligation to their shareholders and their pocketbook. And even more egregiously, they attempted to take aim at NOVA — the National Organization for Veterans Advocates — an organization that has done more for veterans than just about any other. For example, look at any myriad of cases that NOVA has helped litigate on behalf of veterans — even up to the U.S. Supreme Court — entirely pro bono.
With all this in mind, is it any wonder that the co-founder of Veterans Guardian VA Claim Consulting, an unaccredited agency, testified to Congress that their business model would not function if they were limited to the same regulations on fees that attorneys and accredited representatives are bound by?
Veterans should have a choice in how they pursue their benefits. But veterans — and the taxpayer — are entitled to protection from those who will take advantage of the VA disability benefits system to enrich themselves. That is why veterans have access to free veterans service organizations at the county, state, and national level.
Furthermore, regulations prohibit an accredited attorney or accredited agent from charging a single, solitary dime for initial claims. Unlike accredited attorneys and agents, unaccredited claims coaches will charge as much as seven times the increase they “obtain” on the veteran’s behalf — the same work done by an accredited representative would cost the veteran nothing.
The entire posture of the VA benefits regulatory scheme — and the VA’s broad and unequaled duty to assist claimants — is that veterans should not have to pay for the government to do its job the first time. Unaccredited claims agencies turn that legislative intent on its head and charge exorbitant and illegal fees for a “service” that veterans can obtain on their own, for free, by either applying themselves or with an accredited representative.
This is why the GUARD VA Benefits Act is such an important piece of legislation. Introduced in the House by Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., and in the Senate by Sen. John Boozman, R-Ariz., this legislation would reinstate legal penalties for the predatory practices of many unaccredited entities and ensure that only accredited representatives may assist veterans with their disability benefits. This legislation is widely expected to pass and has significant bipartisan support from Congressional representatives on both sides of the aisle.
Veterans should not be preyed upon by the horde of unaccredited companies that wrongfully deprive them of benefits earned in service to this great country. It is important that your readers have this valuable context while considering what service — if any — to use in pursuit of their benefits.
Derek Debus is the director of military and veterans law at Stone Rose Law. He is an accredited VA attorney admitted to practice before the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, the Federal District Court for the District of Arizona, and all state courts in New Mexico and Arizona.
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