'Status Quo Is Not an Option': Lawmakers Press VA on Handling of Companies Charging to File Benefits Claims

Chairman Sen. Jon Tester speaks at a Senate budget hearing
Chairman Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense budget hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pressing the Department of Veterans Affairs for answers about how it handles unaccredited companies that charge fees to help veterans file disability benefits claims.

The letter, organized by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., is aimed at pinpointing the VA's position on the issue in hopes of spurring progress on stalled proposals in Congress to crack down on the unaccredited companies, a congressional staffer told Military.com.

"Maintaining the current status quo is not an option for our veterans who risked their lives to defend our country," Tester and 30 other lawmakers in both parties and chambers of Congress wrote in the letter sent to VA Secretary Denis McDonough Thursday. "We cannot allow unaccredited individuals to target veterans offering them access to VA benefits for a price. Every day we continue to allow this market to flourish, veterans are losing money."

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Lawmakers have been debating competing proposals to address the issue of unaccredited companies charging veterans to file claims, a discourse that has grown more urgent amid warnings that fraudsters are targeting veterans hoping to collect their new PACT Act-granted benefits.

It is illegal for unaccredited agents to prepare, present or file claims on behalf of veterans. But criminal penalties for doing so were lifted by Congress in 2006, leading to a proliferation of companies offering to help veterans file claims for a fee.

One bill, known as the GUARD Act, would reimpose criminal penalties on any unaccredited company that charges veterans to file claims on their behalf. The bill is supported by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, veteran service organizations and the VA.

The other bill, known as the PLUS Act, would change the accreditation process so companies that charge to file claims can legally continue their operations, as well as impose criminal penalties on businesses that remain unaccredited. The PLUS Act is supported by another group of lawmakers and companies who help veterans file claims for a fee.

The GUARD Act has been introduced in previous congressional sessions but has struggled to pass. Thursday's letter was written with the goal of either building enough support for reimposing criminal penalties to move forward on the bill or get answers that could lead to a compromise bill, the staffer said.

While supporters of the GUARD Act see the specifics of the PLUS Act as nonstarters, the staffer suggested there is room for compromise on the general idea of providing a pathway for charging fees to file initial claims.

The sticking points lawmakers are asking the VA for clarity on include what the department considers to be illegal preparation of benefits claims. Lawmakers are also pressing to know whether the VA considers the companies' fee structures, which garnish monthly benefits payments for successful claims, to be what's known as "assignment of benefits," which is generally illegal.

"While veterans should never have to pay to get the benefits they have earned, we are faced with the reality that many veterans are choosing to pay for assistance filing for benefits," wrote the lawmakers, who are GUARD Act cosponsors. "Consequently, VA needs to clarify its position and what protections are afforded to veterans in contracts for assignment of future benefits."

The lawmakers requested answers by the end of October.

"The department must exercise every enforcement tool at its disposal and request those it needs to better protect veterans from bad actors looking to take advantage of them," they wrote. "We passed the PACT Act last year to provide toxic-exposed veterans their earned VA care and benefits. We did not expand benefits as a way for unaccredited scammers to profit from veterans."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

Related: Congress Weighs Competing Proposals to Tackle Companies Charging Veterans to File Claims

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