How The VA’s Policy On Legal Fees Is Misguided

After reading a great article by Debbie Burak, I decided to write something about the VA’s policy on legal fees.  I’ve often thought about the VA’s current policy, but Miss Burak’s piece finally compelled me to put some thoughts to paper.

An attorney can charge a veteran or someone applying for benefits under the veteran’s service when the VA issues a final decision on a claim.  This means that until the Department of Veterans Affairs finally adjudicates a claim, no fee can be charged.  Once the final decision is reached, be it an award letter or a denial, an attorney can assist the applicant in exchange for money.

What an attorney cannot do, however, is charge a fee to help prepare the original application for benefits.

This policy doesn’t mean some attorney’s haven’t skirted the VA’s regulation.  Attorney’s are more than happy to charge a veteran or family member to evaluate what benefits the applicant might be eligible for.  This practice is not a violation of current regulations and I take no issue with it.

Going to an attorney to find out if your family member is eligible for Aid and Attendance offers value.  Most people find the rules and regulations associated with VA Pension to be complicated and opaque.

The Department of Veterans Affairs naturally knows about this practice.  For whatever reason the VA chooses to allow applicants to receive legal assistance in a roundabout manner.  If the VA thought charging veterans to complete an application was so improper, why do they allow attorney’s to charge a fee for assessing eligibility?

The above question can’t be adequately answered because no rational explanation exists.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has decided that allowing a veteran to muddle through the original application is superior to having an attorney charge a fee.

Here are the ramifications of that decision:

1) More mistakes are made

2) The process takes longer

3) More denials are issued

4) More eligible veterans never receive benefits they are entitled to

The VA, in its efforts to protect veterans, actually causes them more harm.  If an attorney could complete the application correctly the first time, more benefits would be awarded to qualified applicants.

Of course, the Department of Veterans Affairs knows this.  Why else would they permit attorney’s to charge legal fees to assess eligibility?

I can unequivocally prove the VA realizes that veterans need, or at least would be better off, with representation.

On August 9, 2013 the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a pilot program to assist veterans with developing disability claims.  The VA teamed up with the American Bar Association and Legal Services Corporation to match attorney’s with veterans.

The VA believes that veterans need help with the claims process.  Many of the attorneys who choose to participate in the pilot program are previously unaccredited and have no experience with the VA.  They receive some basic training and are then deemed qualified to advocate for veterans.

This seems like a half-measure.  And that’s being polite.

Clearly the VA recognizes the need to assist veterans with original applications.  But part of the VA’s solution is to offer applicants untrained attorney’s.

If they really believe an attorney can assist a veteran, why not allow the attorney to charge a fee for representation?