VA secretary: Department taking several steps to deter claim sharks 
Photo by HIlary Ott/The American Legion

VA secretary: Department taking several steps to deter claim sharks 

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough used The American Legion’s Washington Conference to issue a stern warning to individuals or companies that attempt to file VA benefits claims on behalf of veterans but don’t have VA accreditation.

Speaking during the Legion’s Commander’s Call on Feb. 26, McDonough noted that while unaccredited predatory claims companies are not bound by VA regulations and cannot be penalized by the Office of General Counsel, there are still steps VA can take to thwart their efforts.

“When we see predatory companies, bad actors, including non-accredited actors taking advantage of veterans, we’re doing everything we can under the current law,” McDonough said. “You know that the criminal penalties associated with the statute have been removed. But we can still name and shame. So, when we see a bad actor, we communicate with them to cease and desist. And then we publish that actor’s name, so as to deter veterans from going to those actors.

“We have now stood up a full interagency team within the administration, using all of the enforcement authority that we have at places like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, the Department of Treasury, the Consumer Finance Protection Corporation, to make sure that we are using all of those enforcement authorities to name and shame, but to also protect vets whose assets may have been attached or to bring additional regulatory action against the bad actors.”

But McDonough said that VA also has to “get better and more timely about providing claims answers. “Because when veterans feel like they’re getting a fair shake, they won’t like they need to go somewhere else.”

McDonough said VA urges veterans to go to its partners like The American Legion, which has a network of accredited service officers who file claims free of charge.

During his address, McDonough shared the following numbers regarding VA’s effort in 2023, when veterans submitted 2.4 million claims, an all-time record and 39 percent more than 2022, and nearly 2.3 million intents to file, another record.

·       VA processed a record nearly 2 million claims.

·       VA delivered a record $163 billion in earned benefits to more than 1.5 million veterans and survivors.

·       Veterans had 116 million health-care appointments, another record.

·       The Board of Veteran Appeals processed more than 103,000 appeals, another record.

·       More than 46,500 homeless veterans were permanently housed, surpassing the goal of 38,000.

·       4.1 million veterans now are interred in National Cemeteries.

“All of those accomplishments, those are yours, and each of you should be rightly proud of them,” McDonough said. “You play a critical role, a key enabler of the VA’s mission in keeping our promises to veterans. We have no better partner than The American Legion. And this year, going forward, we’re not letting up.

“Together, we’re going to bring new vets to VA. We’re going to expand access to VA, and we’re going to help vets thrive. We’re going to bring as many veterans as possible into our care, because VA is proven to be the best, most affordable health care in America for vets.”

McDonough said VA already was on the way to expanding care, noting that beginning March 5, any veteran who was exposed to toxins and other hazards during their military service, whether overseas or abroad, will be eligible for VA health care.

“This is the biggest expansion of VA care in generations, and we want vets to apply as soon as possible,” McDonough said. “It’s quick and easy to enroll. They don’t need to be sick, the don’t need to file a claim before they enroll.

“Even if they don’t think they need this care today, they might need it tomorrow, or the next day, or 30 years from now. All they have to do is enroll, and then they have access for life.”

On the benefits side, McDonough said that starting April 20, all recipients of VA payments to veterans or family members will no longer be able to have those payments deposited into multiple bank accounts.

“We’re making this change to help protect veterans and families from fraud, and to ensure that we’re able to pay veterans on time, every time, without error,” he said. “This will require all veterans and beneficiaries who receive GI Bill payments and other benefits payments across multiple accounts to select one of those accounts by April 20.”

McDonough was asked about VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization (EHRM), which was paused in September 2023 after reports of veteran harm and deaths in Spokane, Wash., and elsewhere. It carries a price tag of $16 billion.

“I continue to believe, VA continues to believe, that a modernized electronic health record is pivotal, is vital to the future for two very simple reasons, both of which are the reasons we started,” McDonough said. “One, to get access into a full record of a veteran’s service, so we could more promptly and more accurately make sure we’re making service connections. Second, it is the best, most prompt way to ensure access to care.”

McDonough said a decision would be made in the next two weeks whether or not to deploy the EHRM system in the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago that VA shares with the Department of the Navy.

“We think that we need to proceed there so that we are good partners with DoD, and so that we can reap the benefit of that partnership with the Navy for a complete look into veterans records, starting from when they first enlisted, through their entire relationship at DoD and then when they joined VA,” McDonough said, noting the EHRM system also is deployed at two sites in Oregon, one in Washington and one in Ohio. “We are operating those in reset mode. We are updating the system, and we want to deploy it further from those five sites, but we will not until we prove it will work in those five sites.

“I cannot give you a timeline as to when we’ll know. But we are making very good progress right now.”

McDonough reminded those inside the Washington Hilton’s International Ballroom that he continues to view VA’s relationship with organizations like The American Legion as symbiotic.

“VA can’t, and doesn’t, keep this nation’s solid obligation and promise to vets alone,” he said. “Partnerships like the VA partnership with the Legion help us tackle the most pressing priorities on preventing veteran suicide, ending veteran homelessness, improving health-care access and more. We cannot keep our promise to vets without you, your candor, because vets trust the Legion.

“Vets talk to you when something isn’t working the way it should. Your work helps us better understand what veterans experienced in uniform, what they’re going through here at home, and how we can better help them.”