Special Series - Understanding the VA Claims Process -
- The Veterans' Service Officer
“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.” - Thomas Sowell
04.02.08


The emails come often; “Jim...My Veterans Service Officer isn't returning my phone calls.” or, “Jim...My VSO doesn't use email.” or even, “Jim...I called the VA today to ask why the holdup on my claim and they tell me there is no claim! My VSO never submitted my paperwork.”

Most veterans believe that they must use a Veterans Service Officer (VSO) to assist them when they file a claim for disability benefits with the VA. This belief is propagated mostly by the Veterans Service Organizations (also known as National Service Organizations) that supply the Veterans Service Officers (or National Service Officers). Veterans are told horror stories of how difficult the process is, how hard the paperwork is to complete and even how to get an edge by joining a Veterans Service Organization and receiving the “special treatment” of dues paying members.

Earlier today an email message for me arrived from a young OIF veteran. The fact is, he isn't quite yet a veteran, he's on a Temporary Disabled Retirement List with a 40% disabled rating from the U.S. Army. His separation date comes around in June 2008. But the propaganda is already beginning. He writes to tell me, “I was recently at a Disabled American Veterans info briefing where the gentleman who briefed us told us point-blank: 'You WILL need help to properly fill out your VA claim.'”

Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The fact is that the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) holds its doors open to all veterans. The “VA Insiders”, those VA employees who show their concern by writing to us at VAWatchdog tell me that they don't pay attention to where a claim comes from. If the claim is complete, if evidence is in place, if signature blocks are appropriately filled in, one claim is treated exactly like the next.

Even the National Commander of the 800 pound gorilla of these groups, the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), Bradley S. Barton, Esq. agrees. In a press release August 18th 2006 Commander Barton said that the VBA is a “largely administrative claims process, which is designed to be open, informal and helpful to veterans.”

What then, exactly, does a VSO do? What qualifications does a VSO possess? Why do you need a VSO? How do you go about choosing your representative?

We'll begin by looking at how the system works.

If you served in a military uniform, with very few exceptions you're eligible for a wide range of benefits. Most benefits like home loans work smoothly and with little fuss. However, if you believe you're eligible for a disability benefit because of an injury or illness that was incurred or aggravated during your service, you address your mental health or physical injury concerns to the Compensation & Pension section of the VBA.

There you'll find that the demands are more stringent than getting a home loan or using your education benefits. You must prove your disability claim by providing evidence along with an application. The demands for proof of your claim are rigid and unforgiving. The system may quickly become adversarial.

Enter the VSO.

In theory, a VSO is authorized to represent you to the VBA by virtue of training, education and experience. You're required to sign over a limited Power of Attorney (POA) to the parent organization of the VSO. That POA gives the VSO access to your confidential medical records and your military records as well as the right to act for you in matters before the DVA.

As the VSO belongs to a national organization such as DAV, VFW, MOPH or PVA, or since the VSO may be a state or county employee, veterans assume that this individual is supported by their parent organization, that he or she is well trained and and that the VSO will conduct their duties in a professional manner.

Unfortunately, this isn't always the case.

In the last week I've received ever more alarming messages from veterans, like this one; “Dear Jim: I need your advise please. I am a Vietnam Veteran. I have 70% PTSD, 10% disability for surgery in Vietnam. I submitted papers for unemployability with my VSO in (redacted) and the VSO never sent the paperwork to the VA. Background: 2006 I applied for unemployability (IU) using my VSO. 2007, I asked the VSO 'why is it taking so long'? The answer was 'there are a lot of cases'. In 2008, I called the VA office in (redacted) and asked 'what is the problem about my compensation'? His answer was he never received any paper work about the unemployability. In March 2008, (I reapplied and then) I received a letter from the VA stating that I was too late and to start again. How can I rectify this claim as I have lost one and a half years due to negligence on the part of the VSO?”

At first glance, I had a hard time believing this story. After a dozen back and forth emails and a few hours of review, I discovered that the salaried full time employee VSO who represented this veteran had been stuffing away many pieces of important paperwork in a file cabinet without forwarding them to the VBA.

This wasn't the only veteran affected and the local chapter of the Service Organization that VSO worked for is now busy uncovering a year or two of his neglected files. I became a true believer of the veterans story when he provided me with emails where officers of the organization were confessing the mistakes to each other as they tried to avoid any responsibility.

The bottom line was easy to see. The VSO was acting as an independent operator with no guidance from the upper echelons of his organization. He had no supervision and no checks and balances that could quantify his on-the-job performance.

In most jobs the boss is always looking over your shoulder to ensure that you're doing a good job. The Veterans Service Officer doesn't usually have any such oversight of their performance. If there are delays or errors, it's easy to point a finger at the VARO and cast any blame in that direction. If the veteran doesn't get the benefits they deserve, the VBA is always the culprit.

I quickly recommended that this veteran retain an attorney. He's done so. Now he'll set out to recover about 2 years of missing pay and benefits at the 100% rating that was lost to him because of the lack of supervision of the neglectful VSO.

I'll concede that this example is extreme. But it's only extreme because there is concrete evidence to show exactly what happened. Usually there's no real proof that your VSO may not have timely submitted correct documents to the VBA. Many veterans report that when they receive a denial letter from the VBA it's as if the rater hadn't bothered to read all the evidence that the veteran gave to the VSO. Years later, when the veteran gets a complete copy of his claims folder, that evidence isn't there. The VBA usually gets the blame for “losing” the veterans evidence.

The delays and the lack of communication from the VBA ensures that the VSO won't take any heat at any step of the way.

When we examine what happened to this veteran, we soon learn that there is no nationwide standard for who can become a Veterans Service Officer, what training they receive or how they conduct their business.

If you visit a doctor and ask to have your illness treated, a lawyer for a legal solution, a social worker to ask for some guidance with a life or family issue, or a nurse who gives you an injection, you understand that these people are licensed, usually by the state, to practice their profession. A license indicates that they have completed a certain level of education and passed examinations that certify competence. Veterinarians, emergency medical technicians, hospital administrators, barbers, beauticians and teachers all must be certified as competent.

The person who cuts your hair must have a state license and is required to participate in annual continuing education programs. The man that comes to your home each month to spray around some insecticide is required to show his knowledge of how to handle these deadly poisons so he doesn't harm you and your family.

All too often, the VSO representing you has no requirements for any such training or certification.

On March 13th I received an email telling me, “Jim, I'm a relatively new CVSO in (redacted), and was just told by a Vet today about VAWatchDog. I was double-checking what I've learned (on my own, pretty much, thank you!) against your advice. I've yet to have any formal instruction on the processes of filing claims.”

This new County Veterans Service Officer goes on to tell me that he's struggling to learn the system and is completely overwhelmed by the politics, the increasing load of assignments and the overall lack of any structured support for the task of assisting veterans with disability claims. He's aware that there's nobody above him to train him to be competent in his job and that there is no oversight to determine if he's good at his assigned tasks.

I'm thankful that he's reaching out to try to learn as he goes along. His intentions are good and that's something at least. Having said that, I'm horrified to think what his first year or two of claims to the VBA will look like. I hope you aren't one of his first veteran clients.

In theory, prior to being allowed to represent a veteran to the VBA, the VSO must become certified. Certification means passing a test administered by the VBA. The test consist of 25 multiple choice questions and the applicant is allowed 90 minutes to complete it.

In practice, most of the organizations providing a VSO to veterans are “Chartered” by the VBA and are allowed to certify to the VBA that their VSO representatives are fully qualified to obtain a power of attorney. Then the VSO may gather together the veterans most sensitive medical records and practice to represent the veteran to the VBA. The CVSO above was hired into his position by a chartered organization and given a desk and some business cards and now is in control of the benefits destiny of thousands of veterans.

A list of all Veterans Service Organizations is here:
http://www1.va.gov/vso/index.cfm?template=view&SortCategory=1

When a VSO is hired, what do the hiring organizations look for? It's easy enough to determine what the employers are looking for by conducting a simple Google search. Let's try the key words; “veterans service officer qualifications” (without the quotations for the actual search).

There are over 200,000 results and it's immediately apparent that what is qualified in one place isn't in another.

In Inyo County, California a VSO must be a veteran, be a full-time permanent employee of the Inyo County sheriff’s department and hold a valid P.O.S.T. (Peace Officer Standards and Training) Advance Certificate.

In St. Louis County, MN the vacant position requires; "A veteran as defined in Section 197.447 (Minnesota Statutes); two years of college or one year of full-time paid experience as a Veterans Service Officer; residence in the State of Minnesota; citizenship in the United States; education and training for the duties of veterans service officer; knowledge of the law and the regulations and rulings of the United States Veterans Administration applicable to cases before it and the administration thereof." That sounds pretty good except there's no standard for the “education and training” or “knowledge of the law”. The posting ends with, “There will be no written exam for this classification.” so we can bet that the test required by the VBA won't be given.

California's Alameda County is offering a salary reaching to almost $80,000.00 a year for a VSO who has, “a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Administration, Business Administration, Social Welfare, or a related field from an accredited college or university, is a veteran in accordance with Section 980 of the California Military and Veterans Code and within one year of employment, is accredited by the California Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Things are a bit simpler in South Dakota, according to their Internet postings. The codified laws require, “Qualifications of county veterans' officer. The county veterans' service officer shall be a veteran who has served in the armed forces of the United States, as that term is defined by § 33- 17-1. However, any person who was qualified and held this position on July 1, 1989 may continue in such office.”

Lancaster County, Nebraska requires, amongst a few other things, that the VSO is a veteran and; "Graduation from a senior high school or equivalent and some experience in working in the field of veterrans' (sic) services or benefits or any combination of training and experience which provides the desirable knowledges, abilities and skills."

We've gone from a college degree requirement in California to a high school equivalence certificate requirement in Nebraska.

The Missouri Veteran Commission of the Department of Public Safety hires their Veterans Service Officer (5380) in at a range of $26,856.00 - $37,572.00. They tell us that, "This is professional work counseling veterans, military members and/or dependents regarding veterans benefits, available assistance, claim procedures, beneficiary information and eligibility status." To qualify for the job, an applicant must have, "A Bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university; and, possession of an honorable discharge from the military forces of the United States."

The requirements to call yourself a Veterans Service Officer vary widely. Your VSO may be a volunteer with no education, skills or training. The next VSO you meet may have an advanced college degree and certification provided from a federal or state program. Your volunteer VSO could put in only a few hours of time each week and a salaried professional may be taking work home on the weekends.

That there are no national standards of competency established and rigorously enforced by the Department of Veterans Affairs is another way you've been shortchanged. To add insult to injury, the DVA provides many of these organizations free office space and unlimited access so that they're free to troll for vulnerable veterans.

At each of the VA health care facilities across the nation, you'll see the shingles hanging out advertising their services. Sure, they'll welcome you in and they may even help you file some paper with the VA. If it's a Veterans Service Organization's parlor you've stepped into, you can be sure that you'll be offered a “Life Membership” so that you too can be part of their exclusive club. You may even get a hat and a pin to wear!

Then what? What happens to your claim and who will be responsible for the outcome?

Next, we'll look at what's happening in one state...Ohio, here we come.