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VOL. 36 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 24, 2012
Officials want vets to know benefit help is free
NASHVILLE (AP) - Veterans Affairs officials in Tennessee and other states are taking steps to stop the practice of charging veterans to assist them in obtaining certain benefits when there are free services available to help them.
There are people at the county and state level in just about every state who are specially trained to assist veterans with entitlements, such as disability and pensions.
It's illegal to charge a veteran for providing assistance or filing a claim. But certain so-called financial planners or veterans' counselors have found a loophole by calling their services a "consultation" and charging a fee that could cost veterans hundreds of dollars.
Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Many-Bears Grinder said she knows of one incident where a veteran was charged $700.
"It's taking advantage of a very vulnerable group of people, who, by the way, are our nation's greatest citizens," she said.
Veterans' officials say the individuals usually target assisted-living facilities or nursing homes. Donald Smith is assistant commissioner for Tennessee's department and handles veterans' benefits. He also trains people on how to address veterans' needs.
In the case of the veteran who was charged $700, Smith said the individual who approached the administrator at the assisted-living facility described himself as a "veterans' counselor," and was welcomed.
"The administrator ... didn't know any better and thought this was great; somebody is going to help them," Smith said.
In some cases, administrators are aware of what's happening - and are even in on it.
Joe Foster, administrator for Montana's Veterans Affairs Division, said his department discovered that some facilities were collaborating with the counselors to fill beds.
Foster said some counselors advised veterans on how to game the system by diverting assets and filing a claim. The facilities get involved by allowing the veteran to enter on a tentative basis while the claim is pending, he said.
However, moving financial assets to get certain federal veterans benefits is considered fraud. So not only will the veteran not get the claim and be kicked out of the facility, he could possibly lose his life earnings because the assets were diverted, Foster said.
"It's a bad deal," he said. "They don't have their assets anymore. And so they look for Medicaid to assist them in wherever they can live. Medicaid says no because they have a look back on financial assets that have been transferred."
In May, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee asked Smith and others to submit testimony for a hearing by a special Senate Committee on Aging.
Recommendations that came out of the hearing included making it illegal to advise veterans to move assets and educating the owners and administrators of assisted-living facilities that veterans are being preyed upon by the se individuals.
Corker press secretary Chuck Harper said his office recently coordinated a series of events across Tennessee to help veterans and their families connect with resources and services in their communities.
"We have found that a big part of addressing this problem is making sure veterans know how they can get their benefits so they don't end up paying for unrelated or unnecessary financial advice," Harper said.
Terry Schow, executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs, said his department was planning to collaborate with the state's attorney general's office, human services, consumer protection and other agencies for a similar effort.
He said veterans shouldn't be tricked or asked to pay for benefits they've earned.
"They've paid the ... price already by their service," Schow said.