VA Benefits:

Improvements Needed to Ensure Claimants Receive Appropriate Representation

GAO-13-643: Published: Aug 1, 2013. Publicly Released: Aug 30, 2013.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Office of General Counsel (OGC) procedures do not sufficiently ensure that accredited representatives have good character and knowledge. While GAO's analysis shows that VA follows its procedures for reviewing initial accreditation applications, VA relies on limited self-reported information to determine whether applicants have a criminal history or their character could be called into question, which in turn leaves VA vulnerable to accrediting individuals who may not provide responsible assistance. For example, when GAO conducted additional checks on a non-representative sample of accredited individuals, GAO found that some individuals had histories of bankruptcies or liens, information which could help develop a more complete picture of applicants' character and prompt further inquiry by VA into their background. VA's procedures also do not ensure that representatives have adequate program knowledge. For example, VA's initial training requirements are minimal and VA does not consistently monitor whether representatives meet additional continuing education requirements. As a result, some accredited representatives may not have adequate program knowledge to effectively assist clients with their claims. After being briefed on GAO's findings in May 2013, VA's OGC announced plans to take additional steps toward conducting background checks on applicants and auditing ongoing character and training requirements.

VA efforts to administer accreditation are hindered by an inadequate allocation of resources and unclear communication with claimants. For example, OGC has only four staff dedicated to overseeing thousands of accreditation applications each year, in addition to monitoring approximately 20,000 accredited representatives. As a result, OGC has not kept pace with pending accreditation applications, and has not consistently monitored continuing requirements. OGC's reliance on manual data entry results in resource-intensive program administration. For instance, OGC lacks information technology systems and tools that would help it proactively and efficiently identify representatives who are not meeting ongoing training requirements. Moreover, VA does not clearly solicit feedback from claimants about accredited representatives. For example, neither VA's accreditation web page nor information VA sends to claimants clearly communicates their rights or how to report abuses. Absent such outreach, claimants may not be aware that some representatives may be engaging in prohibited practices. Lastly, VA's current accreditation program does not address some emerging threats to claimants. For instance, VA has received complaints regarding unaccredited individuals inappropriately charging claimants to apply for benefits. By law, only accredited individuals can assist claimants. However, VA is not aware of the extent these unaccredited individuals operate, and is limited in the actions it can take to prevent them from assisting claimants.

Why GAO Did This Study

Representatives accredited by VA serve a critical role in helping veterans or their family members file claims for VA benefits. By law, accredited individuals must demonstrate good moral character and program knowledge and VA's OGC is tasked to ensure they do so by reviewing initial applications and monitoring ongoing requirements, such as training.

GAO examined (1) the extent to which VA's procedures adequately ensure representatives meet program requirements, and (2) any obstacles that may impede VA's efforts to adequately implement its accreditation process. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations and procedures, and interviewed VA officials and organizations of accredited representatives. GAO also reviewed a representative sample of accreditation decisions made in 2012 as well as complaints received by VA in 2012. GAO also conducted additional checks on a random but small and non-representative sample of accredited individuals.

What GAO Recommends

To improve the integrity of accreditation, GAO recommends that VA explore options for strengthening knowledge requirements and addressing emerging threats, improve its outreach, and determine the resources needed to adequately carry out accreditation. VA concurred or concurred in principle with GAO's recommendations and cautioned that imposing additional requirements to address concerns with representative knowledge or address emerging threats could have a chilling effect on representation.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: VA's Office of the General Counsel (OGC) has been working with the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) to develop a system to allow prospective representatives to electronically submit applications for accreditation. This system will also allow individuals who are already accredited to submit certification of their completed training requirements as well as certifications of good standing. VA stated that this system will allow OGC to free up staff to spend more time reviewing applicants' qualifications and confirming the completion and quality of required training for accredited representatives. As of June 2014, VA reported that it had completed development of electronic forms for this system and was working to implement the forms in OGC's existing database. Additionally, VA stated that it had eliminated its backlog of good standing and training certifications needing review. GAO will continue to monitor VA's efforts to implement new IT efforts and ensure adequate staff resources.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's ability to ensure that claimants are represented by qualified and responsible individuals, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should explore options and take steps to ensure an appropriate level of staff and IT resources are in place to implement the requirements of the accreditation program. This should include exploring options for utilizing other VA components and resources outside of OGC.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: As of June 2014, VA reports that it eliminated its backlog for reviewing submitted annual certifications of good standing and completion of training requirements. Further, OGC implemented an audit plan to ensure timely and adequate review of certifications submitted by attorneys and agents, and is reviewing a sample of these submissions. In October 2013, OGC sent letters to nine recognized Veterans Service Organizations (VSO) requesting that the VSOs provide their training manuals and materials to VA for its review. OGC reviewed this information and is preparing responses to the VSOs regarding the adequacy of their training materials. Regarding accredited attorneys, VA reported that it periodically provided training on benefits and claim development to attorneys participating in the American Bar Association's Veterans Claims Assistance Network. GAO will continue to monitor the implementation of these efforts as well as other steps VA is taking to ensure representatives are knowledgeable.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's ability to ensure that claimants are represented by qualified and responsible individuals, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should explore options and take steps to strengthen initial and continuing knowledge requirements for accreditation for all types of representatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As of June 2014, VA reports having taken several steps to improve communication with claimants. In 2013, OGC updated the accreditation Web site to include information on how to report complaints regarding unlawful activities, misconduct, or incompetent representation by accredited individuals. OGC responds to these complaints with follow up letters to the individuals in question. In January 2014, OGC and VBA developed a postcard for use during outreach events that warns of financial planners who may be charging claimants improper fees or misleading applicants about their eligibility for benefits. This postcard is also available on VA's Web site and VA has distributed it to Veterans Service Organizations. In addition, OGC is developing a fact sheet for its Web site specific to accreditation that explains the warning signs of inappropriate representation and how to avoid being unlawfully charged for assistance with a benefit claim. GAO will continue to monitor these efforts and close the recommendation when these actions are completed.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's ability to ensure that claimants are represented by qualified and responsible individuals, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should explore options and take steps to enhance communications with claimants, including how they can report complaints related to their representation. This could include exploring options for incorporating information about representation and veterans' rights into existing communications and outreach efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: VA reports that OGC gained access to VBA's system to conduct background searches on applicants. Starting in January 2014, OGC began conducting background searches on all agent applicants and for select attorney applicants when there is concern regarding their applications, such as when attorneys indicate a prior criminal history. OGC has been using this information to help determine whether applicants have good character and reputation. In addition, OGC has referred reports of unlawful practices by accredited and unaccredited representatives to the Department of Justice's Consumer Protection Branch, which determines whether representatives qualify for further investigation. OGC also has consulted with the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau regarding outreach to veterans regarding these unlawful practices. Also, VA in June 2014 was in the final stages of reviewing its Final Rule for Pension Regulations, which includes a look-back provision for the VA pension benefit. This proposed rule would allow VA to deny or discontinue pension payments if a claimant disposes of assets at less than a fair market value in the three years prior to applying for pension benefits. VA states that one purpose of this rule is to deter financial planners who market services and products designed to assist claimants evade the income and net worth limitations for eligibility of VA pension benefits. GAO will continue to monitor the implementation of this rule and VA's other efforts to address potentially abusive practices and close the recommendation when these actions have been completed.

    Recommendation: To improve VA's ability to ensure that claimants are represented by qualified and responsible individuals, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs should explore options and take steps to address potentially abusive practices by representatives who lack accreditation, charge inappropriate fees, or sell financial products to claimants that are not in their best interest. If necessary, VA should consider seeking additional legislative authority to address such practices and enforce program rules.

    Agency Affected: Department of Veterans Affairs


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