Veterans attend a presentation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 1, 2017, as lawmakers heard from American Legion representatives about veterans’ issues.

Veterans attend a presentation at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on March 1, 2017, as lawmakers heard from American Legion representatives about veterans’ issues. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

This is in response to David Cook’s Dec. 6 op-ed, “VSOs should back a PLUS Act that gives vets options,” in which my Capitol Hill testimony was referenced: Disabled veterans like me oppose the PLUS Act, which would legalize the currently illegal practice of charging veterans fees for assistance with their Department of Veterans Affairs disability claims. Up to $12,500 per claim could be charged under this act. No veteran who incurred injuries or illnesses from their service to our country should ever have to pay to access their earned benefits. To propose that veterans do this is insulting.

I’m not against choice. In fact, many veterans don’t know that they currently have lots of options. There are VA-accredited state and county service officers, Veterans Service Organizations like the VFW, pro-bono lawyers, veterans law clinics, and numerous state programs like the Texas Veterans Commission in areas where there are large concentrations of veterans. While these folks operate without charging fees, there are also paid options for veterans who want to appeal VA’s decision on their claims. Accredited attorneys operate within a defined legal structure where their fees are reported and capped. There is an abundance of choice that already exists.

Why don’t companies become accredited? Due to oversight issues with accrediting entire entities like companies or organizations, VA accredits only individuals. Employees at private consulting companies can already seek VA accreditation to become legitimate claims agents within the current system. So why do they refuse to do so? It’s because this would prohibit them from charging exorbitant fees. This is the crux of the problem.

During a March congressional hearing when William Taylor of Veterans Guardian VA Claim Consulting LLC –– a company the VFW considers a “claim shark” –– stated under oath when asked if he was able to become VA-accredited, “The restrictions on what we can charge a fee for would not allow me to continue with my business model.” Taylor made it clear that his business isn’t about helping veterans. These unaccredited claim sharks want to make a profit off disabled veterans. They want to legalize their fee structures through the PLUS Act.

Let’s for a moment play out a scenario where private companies were allowed to charge for assistance with initial VA disability claims or claims for survivor benefits. This would do several things. First, it would create a market for claims assistance where a veteran or survivor no longer has any free options. Free options would disappear, which is a natural occurrence in any market system. Nonprofits, state, and county offices wouldn’t be able to compete when their staff could make more money in the private sector. It would no longer be a matter of if a veteran would pay for these services, but how much a veteran would pay. Not every veteran can afford to pay for assistance to file for their benefits, nor should they. They earned these benefits for serving their country and accessing them should not be turned into a business for anyone to profit.

Second, if private companies were allowed to become accredited and charge high fees, it would disincentivize them from submitting a complete file the first time. Some of these illegal claim sharks are already having veterans file incomplete paperwork so they can bill them more over time. How is that acting in the veteran’s best interest? It’s not. It’s a heartless money-making scheme.

To be clear, despite what claim sharks say, no one can help the VA process claims faster than VA itself. In fact, every new claim filed is adding to VA’s workload. The good news is that VA is processing more claims quicker than ever in history. PACT Act claims, which are primarily presumptive in nature, are being granted very efficiently because they only require proof of service in a covered location and a current diagnosis of a covered condition.

Veterans continue to contact the VFW complaining that they contacted a claim shark, provided basic information, and even if they never signed a contract, the claim shark came for their disability money after they received a rating from VA. Veterans have written and called us asking for help. Our goal is to warn veterans and survivors of these scams and advise them to contact a trained, VA-accredited representative for assistance. In fact, Congress should pass a better bill, the GUARD VA Benefits Act, which would reinstate penalties to crack down on these bad actors.

Bottom line: What these companies do is against the law. Veterans should be careful when considering working with an unaccredited consultant because they may be asked to share personal information, medical records and bank account details with companies that have no oversight, no accountability, and that are operating illegally. All of the companies that charge for initial claims are doing so illegally.

Kristina Keenan is deputy director of National Legislative Service for Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S.

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