NC company charges veterans for benefits advice they could get for free

Updated: Feb. 18, 2020 at 2:26 PM EST
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MOORE COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) – A North Carolina company is charging veterans thousands of dollars for services obtaining disability benefits that veterans could get for free, a WBTV investigation has found.

The investigation started with a tip about a company that charges veterans to help them submit disability claims to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans can submit claims to the VA to establish a disability rating or increase that rating. An increase in a veteran’s disability rating can mean hundreds or thousands more dollars a month.

VA guidelines allow veterans to be compensated for long-term conditions ranging from hearing loss to orthopedic injuries to mental health issues including PTSD.

Scott Patterson was looking to apply for VA disability benefits after spending 17 years on both active and reserve duty in the Navy.

But, he said, the process was full of government bureaucracy and specific regulations that made it hard for him to even submit his paperwork.

“Every time I tried, it was a lot of red tape,” he said in an interview.

After trying, unsuccessfully, to apply for a disability rating on his own, he heard about a Pinehurst-based company called Veterans Guardian.

The company bills itself as a pre-filing benefits consultant.

“They give you a good little spiel on how to take care of things,” he said. “We signed the paper and I had a medical evaluation over a computer.”

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Patterson said he signed documents for his claim electronically and then Veterans Guardian submitted his claim to the VA on his behalf.

He provided an email confirming his benefits had been submitted by the company. The email asks Patterson to tell the company if they hear anything from the VA.

Patterson said he got his disability rating—and the monthly check that comes with it—just three months after Veterans Guardian submitted his claim.

According to the contract Patterson signed with Veterans Guardian, he owes thousands of dollars. The company collects five times the total amount of increase in a veteran’s monthly benefits.

But the VA has warned veterans of companies that advertise themselves as benefit consultants in an effort to avoid having to follow the VA’s rules.

A 2018 article written by an attorney at the VA’s Office of General Counsel—which still links to the article on the office’s website—spells out the process by which the VA accredits representatives of veterans service organizations, attorneys and representatives to act on behalf of veterans in the disability claims process.

Being accredited by the VA, the article said, allows the VA to have four areas of oversight into individuals who assist veterans with benefits: “(a) approving initial accreditation applications, (b) monitoring accredited individuals, (c) investigating complaints, and (d) removing accreditation, when necessary.”

But, the article said, the VA has limited ability to police companies that are not accredited but still engage in prohibited conduct in the course of helping veterans obtain disability benefits.

The article specifically references “pre-filing consultants, who attempt to avoid the law that prohibits charging Veterans a fee for claims representation, by disguising their fee as a charge for ‘general information about federal benefits,’ and claiming that the benefit claim is filed ‘free-of-charge.’”

Veterans Guardian is not accredited by the VA.

Charlotte lawyer Deana Adamson, whose entire practice focuses on representing veterans before the VA on benefits appeals, said that under the VA’s guidelines accredited VA representatives like her can only charge veterans to represent them on appeals, not on initial claims like what Scott Patterson submitted.

“A ‘consultant;’ I don’t know if that’s a means of, you know, getting around the agency regulations but as an attorney, we’re also bound by the rules of ethics and the rules of professional responsibility.”

Adamson said she typically charges clients twenty percent of their back-benefits recovery at the conclusion of an appeal. But that’s after the veteran has submitted a claim on their own and then worked with her—typically for a number of years—on a benefits appeal.

WBTV asked Adamson specifically about Veterans Guardian’s practice of charging veterans five times the increase in their monthly benefits, including after an initial benefits submission.

“I would not engage in any of that type of business practice,” she said. “And if they’re not accredited, they’re, technically, not supposed to be practicing before the agency.”

Related: VA denies veteran disability benefits despite evidence of radiation exposure

A spokesman for Veterans Guardian declined an interview request but said in an email the company does not submit benefits applications on behalf of clients. The spokesman stood by that statement in a follow-up phone call in which WBTV told him of the email Patterson got from the company confirming his benefits had been submitted.

On the follow-up phone call, the spokesman said the company stood by the following statement:

“We are deeply troubled that WBTV would give credence and credibility to these accusations. Veterans Guardian has worked with more than 8,000 of our nation’s distinguished veterans to help them secure the disability benefits they are due for their honorable service to our country. The quality of our work is highlighted in our 5-star ratings across numerous platforms, including the Better Business Bureau.”

Patterson said he now wishes he hadn’t turned to Veterans Guardian for help with his disability benefits.

“Finding out what we found out, I would not recommend them,” he said.

He said he and his wife still have not paid the company the thousands of dollars they owe the company after getting their benefits.

“Was it worth it?” a WBTV reporter asked.

“Not for the amount,” Patterson’s wife, Victoria, said.

“Not for that amount. IT just does not justify,” Patterson said. “There’s no justification for that amount of money.”

Veterans in North Carolina can get free help submitting initial benefits applications to the VA by calling their county’s veterans service officer.

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