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National Group Supports Tougher VA Oversight of Vet Advisors

As an attorney who is accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs to practice before the agency and a member of the National Organization of Veterans Advocates (NOVA), I was happy to see NOVA support tougher oversight of private advisors.  Too many veterans often do not realize that the people giving them advice are not properly trained or accredited to handle veterans matters.

NOVA Supports Tough Stance on VA Oversight of Private Advisers to Vets
GAO Report Reveals Accreditation Program Plagued by Lax Enforcement of Vague Rules

Washington, D.C. – The National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates, Inc. (NOVA) today announced its support of key recommendations made in the latest Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examining the Department of Veterans Affairs’ lax oversight of private advisers to veterans applying for pensions and other benefits. Leaders of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the Special Committee on Aging echoed the GAO’s findings released last week.

In that August 30, 2013 report, the GAO faulted VA for failing to strictly enforce its own vague rules on accrediting private financial planners, attorneys, insurance agents, and others. The nonpartisan congressional agency that audits federal programs also criticized VA for leaving itself open to abuses and for keeping veterans in the dark about their rights.

Among its conclusions, the GAO states: “… current program implementation and requirements do not sufficiently ensure that veterans and their families are protected against potential abuses or that VA has the ability to identify and address situations where representatives are not acting in the best interests of clients.”

NOVA salutes the Senate Committees and GAO for examining this issue and recommending actions to protect our nation’s veterans from unscrupulous advisers who employ coercive, exploitative tactics. The senators’ endorsement of the latest GAO report confirms the need for clear, definable rules and strict oversight of VA’s accreditation program to end such abuses.

“NOVA is very supportive of any measures taken to prevent veterans from falling prey to unethical practitioners, attorneys, and others who promote inappropriate financial products to this vulnerable population or otherwise jeopardize their receipt of the government benefits they earned by carelessly manipulating their assets,” states Mike Viterna, NOVA president.

Senators behind the request for GAO to examine VA’s accreditation program wasted no time making their message clear to the agency. On August 30, 2013, the same day as the GAO report’s release, the senators wrote a letter to Secretary Eric Shinseki stating: “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.”

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman and ranking member of the veterans’ committee, signed the letter, along with Sens. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a veterans’ committee member and former chairman, and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the Senate Special Committee on Aging chairman.

The senators called upon VA to strengthen its accreditation procedures to protect veterans from unscrupulous advisers among the 20,000 approved by the agency. This call for tougher measures mirrors what NOVA representatives told GAO investigators earlier. “During interviews conducted by GAO, representatives from NOVA indicated that the VA’s accreditation standards are not sufficient. The agency’s current requirement that advisers undergo three hours of training does not fully equip advocates to help veterans,” Viterna states.

Echoing a GAO recommendation, the senators also urged VA to do a better job informing veterans of how to report abuses. A lack of staff and inadequate technology compound problems with the accreditation program, the senators added.

The new GAO report builds on an investigation conducted last year that found VA particularly vulnerable to abuse due to a culture of weak oversight and unclear rules. That report found that some firms overcharge veterans for services or sell financial products that end up limiting veterans’ access to the benefits that they deserve.

In addition, the latest GOA report outlines recommendations for executive action to improve VA’s ability to ensure that claimants are represented by qualified and responsible individuals. Click here to view:  the August 2013 GAO report, VA BENEFITS: Improvements Needed to Ensure Claimants Receive Appropriate Representation (GAO-13-643)

About NOVA
The National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates is a not for profit educational membership organization incorporated in the District of Columbia in 1993. NOVA is a national organization of attorneys and other qualified members who act as advocates for disabled veterans. Our goal is to provide excellent representation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans’ Claims, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, and the Department of Veterans Affairs, to veterans who have disability claims against the government resulting from their service as members of the armed forces. Offices are at 1425 K St NW, Suite 350, Washington, DC 20005.

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