Professionals Scamming Veterans--Financial Abuse

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According to an article in the New York Times, a cottage industry has sprung up with regards to VA pension programs.

Lawyers, financial advisers and insurance brokers have formed a lucrative alliance with retirement communities and assisted living facilities to extract many billions of taxpayer dollars from the V.A., according to interviews with state and federal authorities, as well as a review by The New York Times of hundreds of legal documents and client contracts.

The benefit, known as the Veterans Pension program, can be worth more than $20,000 a year to war veterans who are disabled or over age 65. But it is open only to those with an annual income of less than $12,465 for a veteran with no dependents , and many veterans collect more than that in Social Security.

Questionable actors are capitalizing on loose oversight to unlock the V.A. money and enrich themselves, sometimes at veterans’ expense. The V.A. accreditation process is so lax that applicants provide their own background information, including any criminal records. But the V.A. has only four full-time employees evaluating the approximately 5,000 applications that it receives annually. Once people get the V.A.’s stamp of approval, they rarely lose it, even if a customer complains or regulatory actions mount. Last year, the V.A. revoked its accreditation for two of its more than 20,000 advisers.

For the advisers and retirement homes, the attractions are clear. The V.A. program paid $5.1 billion to 514,000 veterans or their survivors this year, up from $3.4 billion in 2007, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The number of veterans or their spouses receiving the aid and attendance benefits, the stipend for assisted living, has surged by 30 percent — leaping to 206,000 in 2012, from 158,000 in 2006.

Holding out the prospect of the V.A. benefit can mean the difference between a vacancy and a paying customer — an advantage that V.A. specialists trumpet in advertisements. “Recession proof your law practice,” Academy of VA Pension Planners, of Roswell, Ga., says on its website.

Yet some warn that the V.A. program, which is meant to help the poorest veterans, will be strained as a growing number of seniors are steered toward it.

Without changes, the program is a “magnet for rip-offs and waste,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said during a hearing convened last year by the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging.

A version of this article appears in print on December 24, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Winning Veterans’ Trust, and Profiting From It.