Rep. Alex Mooney hears veterans’ concerns during Morgantown roundtable

MORGANTOWN – Rep. Alex Mooney came to WVU’s Mountainlair on Monday for a roundtable with area veterans, and learned about a variety of issues they’re facing.

It’s important to meet face-to-face and hear directly, he said; he held a number of roundtables in his old district – when West Virginia had three members in Congress – and wanted to hold this one in his new district as Veterans Day approaches.

While Congress is sharply divided, he said, “One thing that is not partisan is trying to help veterans.”

One problem raised concerns what the VFW calls predatory claim sharks. A virtual attendee from WVU’s law school veterans clinic explained what’s going on.

A veteran filing a disability claim with U.S. Veterans Affairs, she said, needs help, which only should be provided by a VA accredited attorney or agent. And payment for assistance should not be sought until after an initial decision and an appeal is filed.

But the difficult process, she said, has “left a power void for a lot of money-hungry people.” They create educational or consulting companies that require veterans to pay outright during the process or at the end. And they can collect whatever fees they want because they’re not regulated by the VA as attorneys and agents are. “These individuals are preying upon the most desperate of veterans.

They make exaggerated and false promises of success, she said. She named a company that 185 West Virginia veterans have fallen prey to.

She told of two bills before Congress aiming to address the problem. One, introduced by Sen. Joe Manchin in the Senate with a parallel House version, is the GUARD (Governing Unaccredited Representatives Defrauding VA Benefits Act. It would reinstate criminal penalties for unaccredited entities who charge unauthorized fees for helping a veteran file a disability claim.

The other is the PLUS Act, which would incorporate unaccredited private businesses into the VA accreditation system and only allow fees in cases of favorable outcomes.

She said both have flaws. The PLUS Act would help give quasi-accreditation to scam companies, while the GUARD Act needs a means of enforcement. There is a need other options for accredited attorneys and agents to handle claims.

Toby Haney, junior vice commander for the West Virginia VFW, said the VFW is pursuing state legislation to deal with the predatory claim sharks to protect West Virginia veterans. “Seeing something at the federal level would be great.”

One veteran raised a concern about National Guard and Reservist time credited toward retirement. A flaw in the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act, he said, leaves out veterans who served immediately following the 9/11 attacks in 2001; the legislation needs to be made retroactive.

The bill also ties credited service time to the federal fiscal year – Oct. 1-Sept. 30 – which trims off three months’ worth of credit for those whose service don’t start and end on those dates.

The flaws in time credited, he said, delays retirement for many veterans.

Terry Vance, who works with veterans, raised two concerns. One is the VA claims process. He praised the VA for the medical service it provides but said veterans may get shuffled from doctor to doctor, place to place, sometimes out of state, and face conflicting diagnoses and repeated denials. He described his own frustrating experience with a tinnitus diagnosis.

“I get this feedback from veterans,” he said. “They’re so fed up with it. They wear them down.”

The other is an employment stigma. Employers fear hiring veterans over the possibility of PTSD or mental health issues. He said vocational schools should offer job programs for veterans, where they can free vocational training. And the schools could let local businesses know they have these veterans available for hire.

“They can transition to a job as soon as they graduate from that type of training,” he said. It would

offer a fast track for veterans who don’t have the means or desire to attend college.

Mooney said after the roundtable that he appreciated hearing from everyone and is taking back a lot of information about flawed processes and policies to work on. He was surprised by some things, such as the 2008 NDAA retirement flaw, and wondered why that hasn’t already been addressed.

Thinking about the list of issues raised, he said, “That’s frankly a lot of follow-up I’ve got to do.”