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Beware those who prey on veteran benefit claims

If you’ve applied for the Aid and Attendance benefit from Department of Veterans Affairs — which can provide as much as $2,019 monthly for a veteran and spouse for caregiving expenses — then you are all too familiar with some of the reasons for the typical 8- to18-month delays in getting an answer from the VA.

The VA and its overseers say there is a special contributor to the backlog of A&A claims: the need to deter so-called “pension poachers.”

“The system is being clogged by pension poachers who are preying on veterans, who are submitting thousands of applications for people for whom this benefit was not intended,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in an e-mail. Along with Sen. Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina and a ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Wyden introduced a bill last month aiming to help cap bogus claims.

So, who are these pension poachers?

According to the Federal Trade Commission, and according to the findings of an undercover operation by the GAO, hundreds of financial and estate-planning professionals claim to help veterans obtain the A&A benefit. In fact, they mostly charge fees (as much as $10,000) to sell annuities and to set up trusts in other people’s names.

Why?

To hide a veteran’s assets, so that he or she may qualify for the benefit. The money can be used to pay for assisted living; sometimes potential residents are referred to these services by assisted living facilities. But, here’s the catch: Technically, it does not violate VA rules to transfer assets into annuities or trusts — even the day before you apply for A&A. Medicaid will “look back” at assets for 60 months to see who qualifies for its nursing home aid, but the VA does not have such a policy.

The bill by Wyden and Burr would mandate a three-year “look back” on assets by the VA.

“The sooner legislation is enacted to discourage these abuses, the sooner the application backlog can be eliminated,” said Wyden.

Schemes for transferring and hiding assets can backfire. If the A&A application is denied, as so many are, the vet may not be able to touch the money he has put into annuities and trusts for decades without huge penalties.

Further, such transfers of assets could prevent a veteran from later qualifying for Medicaid, which tracks assets and transfers for the previous five years. And given the high cost of nursing homes and assisted living, Medicaid may be the only way for many with limited resources to pay for long-term care.

Then, there is the matter of ethics. Though it may be technically legal to move assets to hide savings, the A&A benefit was not created to enable veterans to save money for heirs. It exists for veterans and their families who are unable to pay for the care they need now. Some believe the department helped create the “poaching” problem itself by being silent for so long about the A&A benefit. And the VA may be perpetuating it by prohibiting veterans from paying for legitimate expert help to begin the application process.

“When you leave people who are in crisis to get care in the dark so that the only people with info have a hidden agenda, you set up the perfect storm for these people to come in and sell you whatever,” said Patty Servaes, founder of Servaes Consulting Group, who helps clients determine eligibility for the A&A benefit.

Bottom line: If you are looking for help in applying for or appealing a decision on the A&A benefit, avoid people who start talking about annuities and trusts instead of looking at your real income and expenses and assets to see if you legitimately qualify. The VA’s prohibition against paying for expert help dates back to the Civil War and ostensibly began to protect the veterans from ambulance-chasing lawyers who would make the application process adversarial. But those restrictions may have produced the opposite results. It can make the VA itself seem the adversary, rather than an organization created to help veterans.

From the RAO Bulletin-New York Times.

Trust fund

The Trust fund is projected to run out of funds by June 20. All monies in the fund must be expended by June 30. Veterans with travel reimbursement requests must contact this office.

Information

For further information on VA benefits, please call or stop by the Archuleta County Veterans Service Office, located at the Senior Center in the Pagosa Springs Community Center, on Hot Springs Boulevard.

The office number is 264-4013, fax number is 264-4014, cell number is 946-3590, and e-mail is raytaylor@archuletacounty.org. The office is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Bring your DD Form 214 (Discharge) for applications to VA programs or benefits for which the veteran may be entitled to enroll, and for filing in the Archuleta County VSO office.

Meetings

The following Veterans groups meet in Pagosa Springs:

American Legion Post 108: Second Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m., 287 Hermosa Street.

American Legion Post 108 Ladies Auxiliary: Second Tuesday of the month at 4 p.m., 287 Hermosa Street.

Veterans for Veterans: Every Tuesday at 10 a.m., Quality Resort.

Women’s Group of Spouses of Veterans: Every other Monday, 6 p.m., St. Patrick Episcopal Parish Hall, 225 S. Pagosa Blvd. Contact Charlotte at 731-1025.

Point Man Ministries’ Breakfast for Veterans, 8:30 a.m. each Tuesday at Buffalo Inn, 164 N. Pagosa Blvd. Point Man Ministries organizes the healing the wounds of war/prayer breakfast for veterans each Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. at the Buffalo Inn. Contact Vincent at (435) 618-0049 or Vfortunato777@gmail.com.

Contacts

Veterans for Veterans: 799-VETS, www.Vets4VetsPSCO.org.

Durango VA Outpatient Clinic: 247-2214.

Farmington VA Center: 327-9684.

The Veterans Crisis Line offers free, confidential support to veterans in crisis, as well as their family and friends 24/7/365. Call (800) 273-8255, chat online, or text 838255.

This story was posted on June 13, 2013.