GAO report on VA accreditation program ‘deeply troubling,’ senators say

A bipartisan group of senior senators said Friday that they are “deeply troubled” by a new Government Accountability Office report that criticizes the Department of Veterans Affairs for lax enforcement of its rules on accrediting private financial planners, attorneys, insurance agents and others who assist veterans in filing for VA benefits.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee/C-SPAN Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee/C-SPAN

The GAO report said the VA has left itself vulnerable to abuses and does not properly inform veterans about their rights and how to report problems.

“We are deeply troubled by the findings indicating weaknesses in the accreditation program, which may prevent VA from ensuring that veterans are served by knowledgeable, qualified, and trustworthy representatives,” said a letter sent Friday to the VA  and signed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), and Richard Burr, (R-N.C.), respectively the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

The letter was also signed by Sen. Patty Murray, (D-Wash.), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, and Sen. Bill Nelson, (D-Fla.), the chairman of of the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

The GAO report found that the VA does not “sufficiently ensure that accredited representatives have good character and knowledge,” adding that the department relies on “limited self-reported information” to find out whether applicants have a criminal history or poor character.

The VA’s Office of General Counsel only has four employees responsible for monitoring thousands of accreditation applications every year, according to the report.

After being briefed on the GAO findings, the VA agreed to take additional steps toward conducting background checks on applicants.

But the department said its existing requirements “adequately ensure that VA claimants have qualified representation,”  and said that additional requirements could have “a chilling effect on attorney representation for claimants.”

In their letter to the VA, the four senators warned that owing to the department’s “deficiencies,” veterans and their families should exercise “due diligence” when selecting representatives accredited by the VA.

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Josh Hicks · August 30, 2013