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VA moves to tighten training requirements for service officers

WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has admonished the Military Order of the Purple Heart for obtaining accreditation for employees who didn't meet federal standards for helping veterans apply for VA benefits.

This case, as well as findings of a recent investigation by Knight Ridder, is spurring the VA to examine whether other veterans groups have adequate training and oversight requirements to ensure that veterans are receiving competent help with their VA claims.

"Your articles identified some organizations that weren't doing training," said Richard Hipolit, the VA assistant general counsel in charge of accrediting claims helpers. "We're going to survey what's out there."

About two-thirds of veterans seeking VA disability compensation rely on claims helpers, called veterans service officers, to navigate the complex process. Nationwide, the VA has accredited about 11,000 service officers who work for nonprofit veterans groups, such as the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans, as well as for county and state veterans agencies.

The VA's regulations require the agency to accredit service officers to ensure that veterans receive "responsible, qualified representation in the preparation, presentation and prosecution of claims for veterans' benefits."

But Knight Ridder's investigation, published last month, revealed the VA does little more than rubberstamp names submitted by veterans groups based on the groups' assurances—by checking a box and signing a form—that the people are qualified. The VA's rules are vague as to what's considered adequate training or experience, and the agency historically has allowed the groups wide latitude in making those determinations themselves.

The VA will be sending letters to several national veterans groups to learn more about their service officer programs, Hipolit said. "If it seems to be that there's sort of a widespread problem, we'll go further," he said.

Meanwhile, Purple Heart officials said they're taking a hard look at their training requirements for their 617 VA-accredited service officers. By summer, Purple Heart expects to submit to the VA a new program with more uniform standards and increased accountability and testing, organization officials said this week.

"I think the concerns that were raised by the VA were timely and they were well-stated, and we were able to respond and satisfy (them)," said John Leonard, Purple Heart's national service director, who supervises the group's service-officer program.

Leonard, who joined Purple Heart in September, received VA accreditation in the fall despite minimal knowledge about the claims process. After the VA questioned his qualifications, Leonard completed a correspondence training course in February and was allowed to keep his certification. But Purple Heart has withdrawn the accreditation of another employee and, at the VA's urging, is examining others' qualifications.

Skilled service officers are often crucial to a veteran's success in getting benefits from the VA. The best ones have expertise in VA regulations and medical conditions and know how to locate and assemble evidence to prove veterans' cases.

Picking the right one can mean the difference between veterans getting their full payment, just a fraction of it or nothing. Disability payments for a single veteran range from $108 to $2,299 a month, depending on the severity of his condition.

While some veterans groups, such as the Disabled American Veterans, have extensive and regimented training requirements, Knight Ridder found that many VA-accredited service officers receive minimal training and are rarely tested to ensure they're qualified.

Documents obtained by Knight Ridder as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the VA reveal that, since 1999, the agency has revoked the accreditation of only two individuals. VA regulatory files on the veterans groups, also obtained in the lawsuit, show that many haven't submitted detailed information about their service-officer training programs in decades.

The Purple Heart case is the latest to illustrate the lax nature of the VA's accreditation system.

Leonard said Purple Heart officials didn't realize that their standards for recommending accreditation didn't meet VA expectations.

While Purple Heart officials told Knight Ridder last summer that the group required a minimum of 64 hours of training and passage of a test prior to accreditation, those standards weren't strictly adhered to, one of the group's executives said.

"I'm the person doing an accreditation cleanup in this office. It frankly was a mess," said Karin Romney, a Purple Heart executive assistant in the organization's Springfield, Va., headquarters.

Romney's own accreditation also came under VA scrutiny in recent weeks. In the end, Purple Heart decided to withdraw her accreditation because organization officials said they felt it wasn't needed for her to do her job.

For several years, the group had been having the VA accredit administrative assistants, mistakenly believing that was required if they were to open mail or handle confidential files dealing with VA claims, Romney said.

That practice has stopped, Purple Heart officials said. In a February letter, VA General Counsel Tim McClain told the group: "We have serious concerns about accrediting anyone whose position at MOPH involves no more than the duties described for `Accredited Executive' or `Admin. Assistant.'"

Leonard said he thought his attendance at a three-day Purple Heart training course was sufficient to qualify him for VA accreditation, especially since his job as national service director involves managing the service-officer program—not directly handling claims.

On his VA application form, Leonard checked the box next to "experience" as evidence of his qualifications. The VA's form doesn't require applicants to provide any further information about what experience or training they have.

At that time Leonard had little experience with VA claims. He'd only worked for Purple Heart for about a month and previously worked in human resources at a water utility for six years.

The VA's Hipolit said the agency is considering requiring that applicants for accreditation disclose in detail their experience and training, rather than just checking a box.

"I think there may have been a misconception by the organization on what we were looking for on training," Hipolit said. "This has been very helpful clarifying for them what our expectations are."

In a March 17 letter to Purple Heart, VA officials emphasized that the accreditation system hinges on veterans groups' word that claims helpers are qualified. "We trust that in the future your organization will take care to verify the accuracy of all information provided on applications for accreditation of representatives," it said.

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To report a problem with a veterans service officer, write to: Richard Hipolit, Assistant General Counsel, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 810 Vermont Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20420

To compare the training and oversight programs of service officers at major veterans groups, go to: http://www.realcities.com/multimedia/nationalchannel/news/KRT_Packages/archive/vets/vets_expertise.pdf

To read the full Knight Ridder investigation of the VA disability compensation system, go to: http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/special_packages/veterans/

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