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The financial experts accredited by the Veterans Affairs Department to help low-income veterans apply for pensions may not be qualified or have the veteran’s best interests at heart, says a group of powerful senators pushing for immediate changes.
Concerns are based on a Government Accountability Office review that found VA procedures do not ensure the attorneys and organizations providing financial planning are knowledgeable or of good character, and that VA does not always check references or monitor whether complaints have been filed.
VA also leaves veterans vulnerable to improperly charged fees and does not ensure the complaint process for those who have a problem with their financial adviser is well-known, says the report, released Friday.
“We believe there are immediate steps VA must take in order to improve the accreditation program,” the senators say in a Friday letter to VA about the report.
“We are deeply troubled by the findings indicating weaknesses in the accreditation program, which may prevent VA from ensuring that veterans are served by knowledgeable, qualified and trustworthy representatives,” the letter says.
The senators are cautioning veterans and their families to be wary until changes are made.
“Due diligence is required even when selecting an accredited representative,” says the letter, signed by Sens. Bernie Sanders, Richard Burr, Patty Murray and Bill Nelson.
Sanders, a Vermont Independent, is chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee. Burr, from North Carolina, is the ranking Republican on the veterans committee. Murray, D-Wash., is the former veterans’ committee chairwoman who now heads the Senate Budget Committee, and Nelson, D-Fla., is chairman of the Senate Aging Committee.
In a written response to the report, the VA agrees that more staff is needed to oversee the program, although cautions that money is tight. VA officials express reluctance, though, to have dramatically tougher application procedures to approve financial planners and legal advisers, saying this could have a “chilling effect” on getting attorneys to take part, especially attorneys willing to help indigent veterans.
VA officials pledged to try to better inform new attorneys about veterans’ benefits, but note there is no penalty under federal law for an unaccredited and ill-trained person to advise a veteran on financial matters or filing a pension claim. Creating a penalty might discourage people who have knowledge of the claims process from providing help, officials said in their response.
The four senators want the VA to act quickly, with better audits and background checks on financial advisers and a well-publicized complaint system to report possible improper behavior.
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