By Dorothy Meindok
The Post Newspaper Veterans Consultant
You’ve read in this column and if you’ve ever met me in person, you have likely heard me speak about VA law and reputable & ethical practice, how important it is and why. I’ve written over the past years about the upward swing of VA law puppy mills and unaccredited persons slipping in and unlawfully charging fees for helping veterans apply for benefits. I shared because it is a topic very near and dear to my heart because I have seen far too many times a vulnerable veteran family, struggling with transition, mental and physical illness on top of the stressors of everyday life get ripped off by someone looking for quick money. There are all sorts of scams out there, from charging for help when it is against the law to do so to charging exorbitant “fees & expenses” that often leave the finally awarded veteran in debt to the person or company that purported to help them in the first place. In some cases, these veterans were solicited directly, with a knock on the door and a person on the other side promising to deliver them full benefits if they just sign the dotted line on a contract that they do not fully understand. I won’t even get started on the violation of legal ethics surrounding “ambulance chasing” and why it is disallowed within the practice of law just know that if someone is personally seeking you out to “fix all of your woes” and you didn’t ask for or indicate that you wanted their help be weary; if they then move to asking you to sign a contract, slam the door shut and lock it behind you. It’s unethical at the very least.
Sadly, this is NOT just a local notice or local phenomenon of living in the metroplex of the nation’s 4th largest and most diverse city; it is a nationwide and growing problem where veterans are finding themselves accidentally signing away what equals months to years of financial benefits. They are finding that they are getting their benefits but are now indebted by private contract to such extent that all the compensation is going to the person who showed up to help them; the person showed up to scam and steal from them because they knew the veteran was entitled to guaranteed federal, tax-free compensation that would be direct deposited on the first of each month.
There are many statutory protections on the books that help protect veterans.
One protection is that the only person allowed to represent a veteran before the VA is one that is properly accredited by the VA Office of General Counsel (OGC). An easy way to make sure the person you are working with is accredited and allowed to practice VA law is to visit VA.gov, look for the Search field (indicated by the magnifying glass symbol) and type in “accredited representative”. The OGC portion of VA’s website will bring you to the search engine where you can search by name and find out whether that person is accredited.
Another protection is in the way of fee percentage the person may be asking for help. The VA supports the charging of fees for helping a veteran with a claim that has been denied at least once in the past, up to 20% of any accrued backpay. This means that if the veteran has not been denied on a specific claim at least once, then the claim is considered an “initial claim” where the charging of fees is unlawful, in fact if it is an initial claim the charging of any fees for services, including “administrative time” to fill out the forms is against the law. The OGC is currently working with law enforcement to better afford penalties to those that demand a fee be paid in submission of an initial claim.
If the claim has been denied, at least once, the accredited person may charge a fee and while there is no hard-line percentage one must stick to in private contracting, a veteran should know that they lose some guaranteed VA protections when they opt for a contract that goes above 20% in backpay. This is because the VA has an entire department of professionals called the Attorney/Agency Fee Coordinator team that oversees the veteran/advocate contract when it is within statutory guidelines, charging fees up to a maximum of 20%, protecting the veteran as well as the paid advocate. If the contract calls for more than 20% of back pay for fees, then the VA stands down and the contract is treated as a private, civil contract. The way this protection works and in my opinion is the only way to go if a fee contract is involved at all is like this. After the veteran is denied a claim, they seek help to re-address it and possibly provide new evidence or legal argument. The parties decide to sign a contingency contract, if the claim is won the legal party is paid 20% of any accrued back pay the veteran is awarded. The contract is submitted to the VA and the appropriate department reviews it and it becomes a part of the veterans file. Once the claim is awarded if back pay is paid, the veteran then receives 80% of that pay and VA holds the remaining 20% for 60 calendar days before releasing that pay to the legal advocate. This 60-day period is a time for the veteran as well as the advocate to raise any concerns they may have as to whether or not the 20% (or agreed upon percentage up to 20%) is a fair reflection of the work provided. If there are no concerns the VA releases the fee, as per contract, to the legal advocate on or shortly after day 61. If there is a dispute the VA acts as an intercessor and ensures that federal statutory law is followed. In this both parties’ rights are secured, the veteran won’t be overcharged, and the advocate doesn’t face the risk of not getting paid for services rendered. However, these safeguards are simply unavailable for contracts signed above the maximum of 20% or when the contract isn’t properly shared with the VA by the legal advocate.
Not all those that charge reasonable fees, fees above 20% or even advertise to the public at large are unreputable practitioners and predatory. Just know that some are, and that number is growing, which is why this month’s Press Conference with VA Secretary Denis McDonough focused not only to raise awareness about the growing fraud but also to inform veterans how to recognize it, report it and what VA is doing and further actions VA is taking to end it, including criminal prosecutions. Below I share the link to the YouTube published recording of the press conference that is packed with powerful information every veteran needs to know.
In the conference you will hear at the start from a veteran spouse and her family’s tragic experience due to representation fraud that devastated her family. VA is launching a one stop website page to better educate veterans on the topic of fraud at www.VA.gov/VSAFE . Additionally, David Barrans of the VA’s Office of General Counsel announced that OGC will now review any veteran/legal advocate contract for fees & representation upon veteran’s request. These are just the beginning of VA’s response to fraud against veterans. I personally cannot thank them enough and cannot wait to see what more they have to offer in protecting veterans.
As always, any person may turn to the VA Office of Inspector General to report any abuse against veterans; you may find the OIG’s Fraud Indicators Toolkit and Crime Alerts at https://www.va.gov/oig/fraud/default.asp.
I have only been able to share a small portion of today’s dynamic press conference and invite you to learn more and become better empowered by viewing the conference in full at: https://tinyurl.com/2sndby4z or by going to YouTube and searching for the official channel of Department of Veterans Affairs. The releases are organized by date and this conference was recorded live and released on September 22, 2023.
Stay safe out there and be well. See you next week. DDM
Dorothy Meindok is The Post Newspaper’s Veterans Consultant. Ms. Meindok served her nation in the United States Navy and is currently a practicing lawyer advocating for our nation’s veterans. Her column appears on Sundays.