After a recent report from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) implicated around 200 companies for improperly charging elderly veterans a large portion of their earned benefits, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate, is pushing for legislation to penalize “pension poachers” who illegally advise veterans on their benefits without proper accreditation from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“Veterans in Iowa and across the country are owed the benefits they’ve earned in service to our country, and anyone attempting to take advantage of these heroes for financial gain should not only be ashamed of themselves but face serious consequences,” said Senator Ernst. “This bill will protect our veterans from these ‘pension poachers,’ assist those veterans who have fallen prey, and ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely at the VA. But Congress isn’t off the hook either; for years, lawmakers of both parties have failed to act on the problem, or even made it worse. There’s simply no excuse for that and I hope my colleagues will take action now.”
Senator Ernst awarded her monthly Squeal Award to both the VA and Congress for failing to do enough to protect veterans from pension poaching, and allowing federal dollars to be subjected to financial exploitation.
Veterans who receive VA benefits may also be eligible for additional pension benefits, known as aid and attendance, if they require help performing daily activities such as bathing or changing. Typically these veterans, age 80-years or older, and are susceptible to financial exploitation. These are the class of veterans that “pension poachers” often take advantage of. They typically offer to coordinate with the VA on the veterans’ behalf to secure benefits, while charging excessive fees without properly registering with the VA to manage the benefits. Currently, there is no penalty for these scammers and the VA Office of General Counsel (OGC) does not provide any oversight of the process.
The Financial Refuge for Every Elderly (FREE) Veteran Act places a penalty of a fine or imprisonment of up to a year for individuals or organizations that provide assistance, advice, or representation to veterans regarding their benefits and pensions without proper licensing from the VA. Additionally, the bill:
· Provides educational resources to veterans and mandates a review of cases handled by agents and attorneys to determine if they are charging the appropriate fees.
· Requires accredited agents and attorneys to advise veterans on their right to appeal fees and fee agreements if they suspect they are unreasonable.
The FREE Veteran Act is supported by the National Guard Society, the National Association of County Veterans Service Officers, and the Iowa County Veterans Service Officers.