VA Secretary McDonald and Under Secretary Hickey better listen up to the voices of abused veterans getting hammered by unethical VA Voc Rehab Counselors nationwide.
“Where do they find these people that work as [Voc Rehab Counselors]?” asked veteran Carla Wiley-Coakley. “My 1st meeting with my [Counselor] was horrific. She was 100% negative about me qualifying for [Chapter 31 Vocational Rehabilitation benefits]… I feel like I'm on an uphill battle.”
Is the process of any benefit supposed to be an uphill battle if you are qualified? Absolutely not, and if you keep reading, I will reveal a proven insight that will keep you from an uphill battle.
Here, Carla has a 100% Permanent and Total disability rating from VA, but when she tried to get fundamental retraining benefits she left the meeting feeling beat up, “Basically she bullied me, disrespected and humiliated me.”
According to the group response on Facebook, Carla’s experience seemed on par with others. She provided specifics that evoked outcry from the DisabledVeterans.org online community, “From the moment I sat down I was very uncomfortable. She felt that I shouldn't have VA Disability that I waited over 30+ years for or apply for SSD. I literally had a severe panic attack when I got to my car after the meeting.” Learn more about Carla's story is below.
In practice, a Vocational Counselor is required to review the veteran’s file prior to the first meeting. These counselors receive extensive training from VA and college in how to communicate with clients in a professional and courteous manner in light of any disabilities. So why did this Voc Rehab Counselor, knowing what she knew about Carla, induce a panic attack vis-à-vis rude and aggressive?
Great question, someone with that kind of knowledge and training would likely know their abrasive technique would induce panic leading me to wonder if it was intentional.
An even better question is this: Will VA do anything about it after they read this article?
In a perfect world, VA Vocational Rehabilitation (VRE or Voc Rehab) helps a veteran get retrained in a suitable field that is within the veteran’s interests. It can help you start a small business, go to law school, become a plumber, or practically anything else within reason, based on its regulations.
Yet, the legal reality is that the program is the Wild West of VA benefits. Voc Rehab Counselors can run rouge with little to no accountability. Lawyers usually will not represent in the area because veterans cannot pay fees and there is no back pay like Disability Compensation for traditional contingent fee work. As one example, in the VRE universe, I am one of the only lawyers with Voc Rehab experience. And, I got that way because I had to fight the Voc Rehab program to get my own benefits for 11 years.
It was a kind of “trial by fire” for me versus a walk in the park for veterans like Senator Jim Webb who also used Voc Rehab to fund law school three decades ago after Vietnam.
But beyond poor ethical accountability, the regulations are vague enough to enable counselors to manipulate veterans out of needed and earned benefits. That is, unless the veteran knows where to look for the right answers.
Regardless, the point of this article is to help you avoid the VA red tape and manipulations. And if you are as disappointed and saddened as I am about VRE abusing veterans, send McDonald and Hickey an email with a link to this article with an explanation of your feelings. Tell them "hi" for me:
- VA Secretary Robert McDonald – Robert.McDonald@va.gov; (513) 509-8454
- Under Secretary Allison Hickey – Allison.Hickey@va.gov
(NOTE: This article is long but you get proven VRE tactics below.)
Here is a little background. Disabled veterans struggling to make ends meet have been writing in to me at a rapid pace with story after story of Voc Rehab Counselors turning them off from successful rehabilitation.
These veterans send reports of Voc Rehab Counselors behaving in an abusive and abrasive manner, and contrary to the law. So not only are the counselors unfriendly, but they also violate their own laws in the form of statutes and regulations.
Today, I grabbed a great Facebook thread about this kind of issue so you could read what veterans are facing, but more importantly what veterans are doing about it.
Here is a quick primer on what the program is supposed to do according to its regulations. This will help you avoid Voc Rehab manipulators.
Voc Rehab History and Purpose
VA Vocational Rehabilitation & Employment (VRE) is one of five channels of Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) programs designed to help veterans succeed despite their disabilities. Around 700 Vocational Rehab Counselors, who are trained through accredited masters degree programs and who have a certification from the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certifications (CRCC), largely administer the VRE program.
Federal regulations drafted by the Department of Veterans Affairs clearly lay out the purposes of the program. These stated purposes create the lens through which all subsequent regulations are supposed to be interpreted.
I will break this down in two different ways to give you a solid understanding as to why abusive behavior does not jive with the law.
According to 38 CFR § 21.1, the purposes of VRE are:
The purposes of this program are to provide to eligible veterans with compensable service-connected disabilities all services and assistance necessary to enable them to achieve maximum independence in daily living and, to the maximum extent feasible, to become employable and to obtain and maintain suitable employment. (emphasis added)
Voc Rehab Program ‘Purpose’ Expanded
Let me draw your attention to a few of the terms and clauses used within the above VRE purpose paragraph. First, you obviously need to be entitled to the program (ie a service-disabled veteran whose employment is impaired by that service-connected disability). Next, you need to keep the word “purpose” in mind as you read on. Also, pay attention to the use of the word “and”:
- “to provide… all services AND assistance necessary” – Here, I interpret “all” as meaning “all” help necessary to get from point A to point B.
- “to enable them to achieve maximum independence” – Maximum independence must mean “maximum independence” versus “somewhat independence.” If a person is wheelchair bound, then my guess would be that the help provided by VRE would focus on making the person as free as possible despite the wheelchair through prosthetic and relates assistance and services. Some examples might be a modification on the truck so the person could still drive. Or, VA might install a special lift for the bathroom or an in-home elevator depending on the circumstance.
- "AND, to the maximum extent feasible” – This presents a modifier. It means the goal related to employment is modified in that it must be realistic. Certain people should be doctors and certain other people should not. Certain people should be accountants and others should not. Nonetheless, the services must be the maximum up to whatever that employment goal cutoff might be ie it must be feasible meaning accomplishable for that person. For example, a person cannot be a lawyer without passing the bar. If VA failed to support the person through the Bar exam after law school, and the person showed they could achieve that goal, VA would fail to provide help to the “maximum extent feasible.”
- “to become employable” – this last set of clauses are modified. The person must receive feasible services to the point of becoming employment, but that is not enough when you consider the next two conditions.
- "AND to obtain” – Here, the veteran must actually receive assistance to obtain employment, but mere employment is not enough.
- "AND maintain suitable employment” – The veteran must be able to keep that job she obtains, and the type of job must be “suitable.” The employment type is thus modified. This means it cannot merely be any kind of employment. For example, VRE cannot satisfy its requirement by forcing a veteran trained as a lawyer to accept work as a forklift driver and then claim VRE did its job. According to VRE guidance in M28R, “suitable” modifies “employment” by requiring the employment type to be within the veteran’s abilities, aptitudes, and interests.
If I rewrite this in normal American English, it would read something like this:
VRE must provide support to qualified disabled veterans in all necessary ways to find employment and stay employed in a filed suitable for the veteran.
If I rewrite this as a butchered math equation, it might look like this:
VA Obligation = (all services costs + all assistance costs to reach Max. Independence) + (all services costs + all assistance costs to reach feasible Max Obtain/Maintain Suitable Employment) = Taxpayer Obligation
Based on this premise according to VA regs, it is inappropriate for a Voc Rehab Counselor to push a veteran into a field of training for employment the veteran is not interested in. It is further inappropriate for a Voc Rehab Counselor to deny necessary services required for the veteran to achieve their reasonably achievable vocational goal. And, VA Voc Rehab Counselors must adhere to their own VA regulations. It is not an option.
If you want to be a lawyer, and you do well in your undergrad and law school entrance exam, VA should consider this. The same holds for an accountant, doctor, plumber, entrepreneur, and pretty much anything that fits the above purpose regulation.
That’s what I did. VRE paid for me to attend my undergrad and then law school. I even wrote a book about it called, The Voc Rehab Survival Guide, to help veterans having a tough time encouraging VRE to follow its own stated purpose.
Remember: MAXIMUM, MAXIMUM, MAXIMUM. With this information, you will now be able to spot a Voc Rehab Counselor who is trying to manipulate you by approving anything less than the "maximum."
Now let’s consider reality for many veterans.
Voc Rehab Horror Story
Here is a recent example on our Facebook group of things not going in the right direction and what a lot of veterans suggested on how to fix it based on person experience:
Where do they Find these People that work as VRC's????
My 1st meeting with my VRC was horrific. She was 100% Negative about me qualifying for Chp.31. I'm 100% total permanent disabled by the VA. From the moment I sat down I was very uncomfortable. She felt that I shouldn't have VA Disability that I waited over 30+ years for or apply for SSD. I literally had a severe panic attack when I got to my car after the meeting. Basically she Bullied me, Disrespected and humiliated me. I want to switch but don't want to hold up the process even longer. I fell like I'm on an Uphill battle.
Oisin Willis That’s such bullshit, she is in no position to look down on you, she is not a doctor!!! I had the same problem with the woman who processed my claim, she marked me absent for multiple appointments (when I called her with at let 24 hours notice that I would be unavailable), she also sent my claim off prematurely saying that she could not wait any longer. One day I was scheduling an MRI and she said don’t worry about it “you look healthy, you’ll be fine.”
This is not her place to make remarks and although I’m unfamiliar to the Chp.31 I would suggest reporting the said person and requesting someone else. These people are here to help us not to humiliate us or make remarks about our health!!!
Oisin Willis This makes me so angry because I feel like there are more veterans than just us two dealing with issues like these that may not be able to speak up for themselves and in turn walk away from the benefits that they DESERVE. There needs to be someone that can hold said individuals accountable
Sarah Grant Switch! If you are being treated poorly now it will not get better.
After watching my husband fight with a bad counselor for 2 years I can say it would be better to slow down the process and have someone truly on your side than fight an uphill battle for the next year or more. You have enough to battle. Thank you for your sacrifice and you deserve better.
Carla Wiley-Coakley Oisin Willis Thank you for your understanding. It means a lot
Carla Wiley-Coakley Sarah Grant sorry to hear about your husband. Being in this situation fees so lonely and not knowing who to contact about this makes it more frustrating.
Todd Millsap That's discrimination and I'm dealing with exactly the same thing .
Carla Wiley-Coakley Todd Millsap, I don't understand the negative attitude from the VRC'S. As veterans we are trying to better ourselves. We aren't looking for handouts
Nancy Bryant What's a VRC? Never heard of that?
Roy Ingram Your VRC needs to be slapped.... Very Unprofessional
Roy Ingram Voc rehab counselor
Carla Wiley-Coakley Nancy Bryant VRC'S Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. They qualify you for money for college, trade school etc.
Nancy Bryant Ahhhhhhhh, I was denied services by them 3 times, was told since I'm 100% Permanent & Total that it should be assumed I'm IU even though it's a moot point for them to officially document I'm IU since I'm 100% without it...
Ben Krause Your Voc Rehab Counsel behaved in an abusive manner against a protected class person likely with the intent of causing emotional distress. It might be called IIED because she is likely trained, certified and knows how to communicate properly but chose not to.
Todd Millsap I don't get it either? From day one almost two years ago now I feel like my VRC is completely against me and other than determination of the barrier to employment and a certificate of eligibility, I'm avoided like I have a disease or something , I've been lied to given the run around and my VR&E experience has been less than desirable and I generally dread have our meetings not to mention any email correspondence I initiate has all been ignored. I think I'm gonna just get a lawyer and let them deal with it. It shouldn't be like this for any of us that are eligible for VR&E benefits? Frustrated!
JM Jimenez At VA today..gonna get MH doc to write a note in the system to tell my VRC her testing my feasibility for employment is a waste of time...and then I am walking next door to the RO to surprise the CH 31 crew. Plus I have emailed everyone and all evidence to all parties. No more damn excuses.
Rick Taylor I recently went through a similar issue. I am in Voc Rehab going to college. I was reassigned to another counselor because the one I had retired. I did not know she retired until I called t ask why she had not been responding to my emails. That's when I found out she retired. It took them 3 months to assign me someone else. When I finally had a new rep, it took 2 months to get her on the phone. When I was talking to her, I told her that I had talked to the other one and was thinking about changing my degree. Well here is where she treated me like I was just coming into the program. She wanted me to fill out paperwork like I was just now entering the program. She tried to dominate the phone conversation, and when that happens my voice tends to escalate, and she told me not to raise my voice. I explained to her that I was not yelling. I am trying to get my two cents into the conversation that you are trying to rule. She said we needed to have a sit down in her office and for me to bring the paperwork that she had sent me via email. I called a few weeks later and asked to speak to her supervisor. They put me to her voice mail. I left a message and she called two days later. I explained what I was trying to tell my rep, and for some stupid reason she agreed. Why should I have to redo my paperwork because I was thinking about changing my degree program? When I finally got my appointment to see her, her tone had changed, but she still tried to dominate. This is where I had to lay it on the line. I told her that her job is to assist me and I was not going to put up with her attitude. I told her I have been in this program since August of 2012, and she would know this if she would take the time to look at my file. She now understands where I am coming from because she cannot bully me because I fire back as quickly as she starts her crap. The one thing that pisses me off about the VA. Most of the ones that work there haven't served a day in the military and are CLUELESS as to what we’ll put up with during our time in the military.
Juan D. Reyna Do some research, as I understand it, if you're at 100% disability rating and unemployable, you might lose that rating once you complete your course of study!!!
Carla Wiley-Coakley Juan D. Reyna I'm total permanent and don't have any restrictions on working. Now I’m really confused.
Nancy Bryant Carla, he said unemployable, not permanent and total... They are 2 different things. Don't be confused.
Nancy Bryant Permanent & Total means your medical conditions are just that: Permanent and total, for the rest of your life, it doesn't mean (for some) that you can't work. On the other hand, Unemployability, is supposed to mean you aren't able to work. With that said, Voc Rehab is to help get you back to work, so if someone is currently IU, but partaking in Voc Rehab and successfully completes it, they won't keep that IU rating once employed.
Nancy Bryant I don't think they should keep it IF they successfully completed the Voc Rehab because it shows they are capable and they used a service another Veteran could have used... Just my opinion.
Jerome Kelly Williams Now I know all counselors are not the same but the stories I hear have me believing there are few that care. I have been going through a nightmare case for 4 years. My first attempt I was denied without even being given an initial eval. They claim to never receive my appeal. I have proof of delivery. The second one I was denied then offered testing...go figure....my appeal was never forwarded. Third one denied quickly....filed an appeal that again vanished but I again had proof of delivery. Sending an email to Allison Hickey got the ball rolling and I finally got my SOC. For course that is because the head of the VA regional office in my area required the VRE office to keep him updated on the status of my claim.
Nancy Bryant I never got evaluated... I was told... "WOW, 2 70% ratings, a 50% rating, 40% rating, 30% rating, 4 kids at home and you WANT to work?" He then suggested I had too much going on medically, that it was a full time job just caring for myself, then add 4 kids into the mix, he felt I wouldn't finish a program... DENIED! Oh, and he said I never had a thorough Neuro work up following my accident that he'd consider valid, so I'd have to get one done, then MAYBE he'd consider me... The VA, nor Tricare will do the work up and if they do, what do they have to compare it to?? SMH
Ramona Alys Carla Wiley-Coakley, if you are completely unable to work, and have no desire to work, then the program for you would be the Independent Living program. The VRC would have to determine your eligibility. I always suggest that following all meetings you send an email with something like, "It is my understanding that this is what I was told in our meeting. Am I correct?" Basic info is on here, and more involved info:
Ramona Alys As for VRCs, they are required to have their Master's Degrees. There are some that are wonderful, and ones that act like the benefits come directly out of their pockets. I've had both, but it took going over the bad VRC's head to get a new VRC and get what I needed.
JM Jimenez ^^^ That's what I have been trying to convey. I just finished explaining to my MH doctor why CWT is not good option...he agrees, but realizes the protocol. I am now at the doorstep of CWT coordinator to state my case of why I am not participating. I have enough to do to take care of myself and all ailments...who has time for experimental Shit. VRC wants me to do this before I get ILP.
Ramona Alys Besides, if you were working we'd miss your presence on here!
JM Jimenez The only reason I need ILP is so I can get a massage chair and recumbent bike....nothing else...not given through VHA.
John Dixon From now on record your conversations. Let them know you have anxiety and want to ensure that you get all of the information that she is giving you! You'll see a quick turn around in their attitude! It's a viable and feasible request to record them!
Todd Millsap I do the same thing JM Jimenez. Lol Just a record to fall back on .
Nancy Bryant A massage chair and a heated, jetted bath or hot tub would be like HEAVEN for me and my pain. I just wouldn't know what to do with myself!
Carla Wiley-Coakley I've been a licensed practical nurse for 16 years I usually work part time. I was working part time when I applied for VA disability and they knew that. My dilemma is hospitals don't hire anymore in my area. I need a Bachelor degree in nursing to get hired. I've tried other areas of nursing but just wasn't a good fit for me. I only have hospital experience. I want to be a Registered Nurse. I know I would be hired as soon as I graduated. I can't find work here.
Carla Wiley-Coakley Oisin Willis I'm sure we aren't the only 2 going through this. I always have a positive outlook on things but this person sucked all that right out of my soul. I have at least 50% complete but can't the other half of my education. It's taken me nearly 5 years to pay as I go before granted my VA disability.
Tammie Montez Delatte Get her name and report it there is no place that one should treat us with disrespect
Sarah Grant Carla he is done now and at the end was switched to an awesome counselor but wow it was frustrating:)
Kevin Browning I have gone through the Voc-Rehab program and I had the misfortune of getting a new counselor right in the middle of my degree. My first counselor informed me that even if I got social security that I could still go to college because she has people who have retired and only want a degree so that they have something to do. However, when I got my new counselor, she was like no way, if you are not able to work, then I need to withdraw you from the program. Needless to say, I did graduate, but shortly after I got a job, I had to resign. Also, VA will not pay for a pool, sauna, or jetted tub. I was also referred to the ILP, but that was back in April and although I have spoken to my counselor and she has even followed up with whoever does the program, I still have not heard anything else.
Conclusion – Despite VA law, are VA benefits meant to be maximized?
After reading this, you may be asking yourself, “How can counselors be so bad in light of pro-veteran laws?” My guess is because some VA employees do not like veterans and let their bias affect their decisions to the extent that they will disregard the law.
I wish I knew the true reason VA allows this to go on, but I have an idea. Now, as a disclaimer for my upcoming hypothesis, I did offer to work for VA while finishing law school to write benefits guides that veterans would actually use. I flew to VA on my own dime, met with Under Secretary Hickey and told her she needed to hire me to fix her stuff.
They humored me for the moment but the offer went nowhere. My only conclusion based on the evidence and my years writing to veterans is that VA, by and large, does not want you to utilize your benefits to the maximum extent feasible. If it did, VA would eliminate all obstructionist employees and that would be the end of that.
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Benjamin Krause is an award winning investigative journalist, attorney, and disabled veteran of the US Air Force, where he served in its Special Operations Command. He wrote his guide, the Voc Rehab Survival Guide for Veterans, after winning his long fight for benefits against VA to help other veterans do the same. Benjamin is a graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Minnesota Law School using VA Vocational Rehabilitation.