WASHINGTON—A top official at Vietnam Veterans of America abruptly ended his bid to become the group's president this week after Knight Ridder obtained the results of an internal probe that concluded he'd "repeatedly and routinely submitted misleading and fraudulent paperwork" to help vets obtain federal benefits.
Officials at the pre-eminent advocacy group for the nation's 8 million Vietnam-era veterans documented the problem in 2001, but never shared their findings with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Instead, they allowed Jim Grissom to quietly resign as a claims handler, yet hold increasingly greater leadership positions within the organization. And unbeknown to the group, he'd continued to handle claims.
The VA now is investigating the case, which is a striking example of the agency's lax oversight of thousands of individuals who are accredited to assist veterans through the complex process of applying for disability compensation and other VA benefits.
The VA pays more than $20 billion in disability claims every year, many of them based on the work of claims handlers such as Grissom. But a Knight Ridder investigation found that the handlers often aren't adequately trained and screened for integrity and ability.
Although he isn't a medical professional, Grissom signed psychiatric evaluation forms that helped veterans get VA medical treatment for post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Grissom, who as national secretary holds the number three position in the VVA, said he never intended to mislead the VA or anyone else when he filled out and signed the forms. He said he thought the issue was behind him. "We came to an agreement," said Grissom, who lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. "I resigned my accreditation and that was it."
As the VA's inspector general and Office of General Counsel open investigations into Grissom's conduct, nine of the nation's best-known veterans charities began receiving letters from the VA this week seeking information about how the groups educate, test and supervise VA-accredited claims helpers, called service officers. The letters, which went to groups such as Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, the American Legion and the Marine Corps League, also asked whether the groups think current regulations are adequate.
About two-thirds of veterans who apply for disability compensation from the VA get help from service officers, who may work for nonprofit veterans groups or county or state veterans departments.
Federal regulations require the VA to accredit service officers to ensure that veterans receive "responsible, qualified representation in the preparation, presentation and prosecution of claims." But Knight Ridder found that the VA largely has ceded responsibility for making that determination to the veterans groups. The VA just rubberstamps as "accredited" the names submitted to it.
Similarly, when a veterans group tells the VA to cancel a service officer's accreditation, the VA does—no questions asked. That allows service officers who are fired or forced to resign to keep or gain accreditation through other veterans groups and continue helping veterans with claims.
That's what happened with Grissom.
In a recent interview and e-mail exchanges, Grissom said he didn't think he was doing anything wrong at the time when he would write down assessments of how dysfunctional a veteran was and submit them to the VA's Puget Sound Health Care System. The medical-referral forms helped get his clients placed in a Seattle inpatient treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder, a psychiatric disorder caused by experiencing a life-threatening event.
Indeed, Wayne Ball, who at the time was the VA's post-traumatic stress disorder triage treatment coordinator in Washington state, encouraged Grissom to fill out the forms.
"His intentions were good. My intentions were good. I'm just dumbfounded by this whole thing," Ball said in a recent interview.
Ball said he knew Grissom wasn't a therapist, but that the information he provided on the form was still helpful in determining the need for hospitalization, along with the veteran's military discharge papers and a telephone interview with the vet.
Grissom said he was just trying to help veterans get the treatment they needed for the disabling nightmares and flashbacks the disorder caused. He said he filled out the forms in consultation with therapists.
Diagnosis with post-traumatic stress disorder is an important step in obtaining disability compensation checks worth $108 to $2,299 a month for a veteran who's single.
"In signing these forms, you have clearly misrepresented yourself as a practicing medical professional who has the requisite medical expertise to make a bona fide clinical inpatient referral," Leonard J. Selfon, director of veterans benefits, wrote in an Oct. 9, 2001, letter that was circulated among the charity's top officials. "Through your actions, the veterans risk exposure to unwarranted medical treatment, false confinement and risk losing their current benefits and becoming barred for future benefits on the basis of false claims." Grissom resigned before the letter was sent to him.
Even though Ball and another therapist wrote letters on Grissom's behalf praising his efforts for veterans, charity officials were poised to forcibly revoke Grissom's accreditation. They allowed him to resign as a claims handler instead, and not contest the cancellation of his accreditation.
"He made a mistake. We corrected the mistake and moved on," said Tom Corey, the president of Vietnam Veterans of America, which has 525 chapters nationwide and more than 50,000 members.
Selfon said that until recently the charity thought that Grissom's resignation had accomplished the desired outcome: It meant that he'd no longer handle claims for Vietnam Veterans of America.
"Last year I assisted maybe 10 veterans at the most. This year I've worked with 3-4. Many of the veterans I assist are members of VVA, and they hear about me by word of mouth," Grissom said by e-mail in response to Knight Ridder's questions.
Selfon said he sent a registered letter to Grissom on Thursday demanding that he cease assisting members with claims.
Despite the 2001 concerns about Grissom's actions as a service officer, Selfon didn't alert officials in the VA's General Counsel's Office.
"We received a letter from VVA asking to terminate Mr. Grissom's accreditation and there was no reason stated. And they're not required to state a reason under our regulations," said Richard Hipolit, the VA assistant general counsel in charge of accrediting service officers.
Documents that Knight Ridder obtained as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the VA show that the agency has revoked the accreditation of only two individuals since 1999. But the VA has no idea how many veterans groups fired or forced the resignations of service officers and then requested that their accreditation be canceled without any explanation.
There are about 11,000 names on the VA's current roster of accredited service officers. Many of those individuals are accredited through two or more veterans groups.
Even though he lost his VA accreditation through Vietnam Veterans of America, Grissom was allowed to stay accredited through the National Veterans Organization of America. That group was unaware that Grissom had lost his accreditation through Vietnam Veterans of America until it was contacted recently by a reporter.
Douglas McArthur, the executive director of the National Veterans Organization of America, called the protections that the VA's accreditation system offers "pretty meager."
Grissom is one of three Vietnam Veterans of America service officers whose accreditations have been canceled by the group in the last five years, Selfon said. One was collecting money from veterans for claims help—a violation of VA rules—and the other had severe psychiatric problems that interfered with claims handing, Selfon said. In neither case was the VA told the reason, he said.
The group's election will be in August at its national convention in Reno, Nev. Ed Chow, who's the group's vice president and was a VA deputy assistant secretary until 2001, is now the only declared candidate for president, though others could run from the floor.
To read Knight Ridder's ongoing investigation of veterans benefits issues, go to www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special(underline)packages/veterans
To voice your opinion on the VA's oversight of veterans service officers, write to Richard Hipolit, Assistant General Counsel, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Office of the General Counsel, Washington, DC 20420.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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