The PACT Act was intended to make filing for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs easier, but has also created an outlet for scammers to target veterans and service members.
Signed into law in December, the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act of 2022 was a bipartisan effort that removed red tape preventing health care access for service members with burn-pit related illnesses.
Ryan Gallucci, National Veterans Service director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said it’s most important that veterans and service members know that filing for benefits is free through many accredited organizations, whether or not they’re a member. These include, but are not limited to, VFW, American Legion and Wounded Warrior Project.
“Independent, unregulated consultants are charging fees for benefits assistance to veterans outside the scope of what is allowed by current law,” said Gallucci, who served in the Army Reserve and deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
He said veterans might pay out of pocket for some accredited representatives, such as attorneys. Veterans looking to apply outside of organizations like VFW should know all accredited consultants will either be free of charge or have a fee that is capped by the federal government.
The first step when looking for help filing for benefits, according to Gallucci, is to ask if they are VA accredited. This can include attorneys and consulting companies. When searching for a representative, veterans should also ask if the representative charges fees and how much it will cost.
Federal law states that fees below 20% of any past-due benefits awarded are considered reasonable. Fees exceeding 33.3% of any past-due benefits awarded are considered unreasonable and might be reviewed through VA.
Gallucci also said other indicators of a scam are if a veteran or service member is contacted out of the blue by someone saying they can help them file for benefits, or if someone is advertising the promise of faster and better access to benefits.
These scams can come in the form of phishing (emails), vishing (cell phone messages or phone calls) and social media ads. However, Gallucci said that not all ads are scams, but veterans should make sure they research the organization or individual before agreeing to anything.
“I want service members … to recognize the point of the PACT Act was to make this a simpler process,” Gallucci said.
Veterans can report scams to the Office of Inspector General (OIG), but no penalty is currently in place for unaccredited people or companies scamming veterans. Gallucci said he and other colleagues are looking to the next Congress to make a push to reinstate penalties for these scams.
Veterans can visit the VFW, American Legion, Wounded Warriors Project, and any other accredited organization’s website to file for free. They can also search for an accredited representative locally with the VA’s Accreditation Search.