We Must Stop Predatory Companies from Scamming Veterans Seeking Disability Benefits

This is the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va.
This is the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va., on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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In 1967, I was stationed at a U.S. Army base in Bien Hoa, Vietnam -- one of the primary nodes in Operation Ranch Hand. This was the lighthearted name given to the cruel campaign of defoliating large areas of Vietnam with Agent Orange, making it easier for bombers and fighters to set their targets and depriving the local population of food. Almost 60 years later, the soil and groundwater in and around Bien Hoa remain contaminated with toxic chemicals, making residents ill.

Many Vietnam veterans have also become sick. I have two medical conditions resulting from my exposure to Agent Orange: cardiac disease and prostate cancer. The Department of Veterans Affairs provides care and compensation for these ailments, though this support requires securing a disability rating -- a number from zero to 100. The higher the number, the more care and compensation a veteran receives. Getting that rating entails navigating a morass of regulations, evaluations and paperwork.

Thankfully, there is an army of well-trained and accredited service officers, who often help veterans like me. Unfortunately, there is now also a competing industry of unaccredited, for-profit companies, many of which offer sketchy services at astronomical costs. I've used accredited officers for both of my conditions, though in my most recent experience for prostate cancer, I've been inundated by appeals from shady claims companies, referred to by veterans' advocacy groups as "claims sharks."

As things currently stand, the VA is not able to take legal action against unaccredited claim sharks. It can only send cease-and-desist letters. This is the result of a truly illogical policy that Congress pushed in 2006. While Congress said the predatory tactics used by claim sharks are technically illegal, legislators mysteriously removed any penalties.

Since there are no legal consequences for noncompliance, claim sharks across the country are acting with impunity. Congress is seeking to stop predatory sharks through the GUARD VA Benefits Act, mostly by reimposing criminal penalties. Veterans and the broader community should contact their congressional delegation and demand immediate passage of this legislation

The nation cannot allow predatory companies to take advantage of those who answered the call to duty. I secured my rating for cardiac disease nearly a decade ago, before these unaccredited "claims sharks" had really emerged. The path to my rating began after I experienced a heart attack and underwent emergency quintuple bypass surgery. Unfortunately, I had a potentially fatal allergic reaction to one of the drugs I was given, which caused me to be kept unconscious for four days. I consequently developed pneumonia, and a false diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was entered into my medical record.

After the surgery, I contacted my county's Veterans Services Office to apply for a service-connection rating for cardiac disease. This office employs agents who are trained, tested and accredited by the VA Office of General Counsel. Accredited claims agents undergo background checks. The accredited agents employed by local governments or veterans' groups don't charge for their services. Those who do must submit detailed fee agreements to the government to be scrutinized and approved as fair.

The office submitted my initial claim, which was approved only for a 10% disability rating. This was because of the false diagnosis of COPD, which was cited as the primary factor in my cardiac issues.

My accredited officer assisted in helping me object to the diagnosis of COPD. As part of this appeals process, I was referred for a more comprehensive medical examination. My accredited officer also advised me to obtain a statement from the pulmonologist who examined me post-surgery and found no evidence of COPD. Submission of the pulmonologist's evidence, combined with the findings of the second medical examination, resulted in the VA reversing its initial decision and awarding me a 60% disability rating. This was far from an easy process, but I was deeply grateful to have free, expert assistance in the form of my county service officer.

A decade later, in January, I had prostate surgery. Tissue biopsies revealed the presence of prostate cancer. I returned to the same county veterans office, which prepared and filed a claim for service-connected disability based on exposure to Agent Orange.

My service connection for prostate cancer is currently under review by the VA, but, like cardiac disease, it is a presumptive disability from exposure to Agent Orange. An award of service-connection for prostate cancer is expected soon. According to the VA, a decision letter is being prepared.

Ever since I applied for a service-connected rating for prostate cancer, I have been inundated by ads from these claim sharks. They are not required to adhere to the same professional and ethical standards as accredited representatives, and many are poorly trained to help a veteran navigate the intricate rules and regulations concerning veterans' benefits.

Claim sharks are for-profit companies that charge thousands for services that are provided for free by county veterans service offices and veterans service organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, and the American Legion. The assistance offered by accredited VSOs is of higher quality than what's offered by claim sharks. That's because their mission is to help veterans, not to use them to turn a tidy profit.

The ads from claims sharks appear daily in my email messages and on my Facebook account. They falsely claim to offer expedited service and suggest it is possible to easily achieve an award of 100% disability. In fact, there are no shortcuts to the VA disability process.

-- Bruce Carruthers is an Army Vietnam veteran, retired VA employee, and member of the Steering Committee at the Veterans Healthcare Policy Institute.

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