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A Veteran’s Guide to Disability Claims [2024]

When the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) became law in August 2022, it increased benefits for veterans who were exposed to burn pits, herbicides, Agent Orange and other toxic substances during their military service. 

The number of claims submitted has risen dramatically since the PACT Act was passed.  

According to the VA, in 2023, veterans submitted a record 2.4 million claims – 39 percent more than in 2022 - and the VA delivered a record $163 billion in earned benefits to more than 1.5 million veterans and survivors.

If you’re not sure if you’re eligible for disability claims, find out more here

Veterans have multiple options for filing claims:

  • Filing their claim with the VA themselves, without assistance

  • Using the services of a nonprofit VSO, like the VFW 

  • Hiring an attorney or other for-profit entity 

You are not required to use any assistance in filing your claim.

How to get started

If you are receiving help in filing your claim through a VSO, an agent or an attorney, you will need to sign over a Power of Attorney, allowing the organization or individual to access all medical and military records in order to act on your behalf. This Power of Attorney is limited only to VA claims. Without it, the VSO or attorney will not be able to receive any information about the claim. Veterans who do not wish to sign over a Power of Attorney should consider filing their claim independently.  

These VA videos help explain the process: 

What are the benefits of filing your disability claim with the help of a VSO representative? 

The majority of VSOs were started by veterans for veterans. They understand the process and are up to date with current legislation affecting veterans. VSOs do not charge for these services. 

A representative from the VSO will help you step by step through the process and can tell you if you need any supporting documents or any additional forms. Once your claim is filed, they will track the claim through the VA system and act as the liaison between you and the VA, explaining the outcome to you. 

The following organizations are accredited by the VA and provide services free of charge. You do not have to be a member of these organizations to use their services: 

What are the benefits of filing your disability claim with the help of a for-profit entity? 

Some for-profit, independent claims agents and attorneys are VA-accredited. Being accredited by the VA means that the individual or company has undergone a character review and passed an examination about VA law. 

For-profit entities charge for their services. VA-accredited for-profit entities, such as claims agents and attorneys, may be able to help you if your claim is denied, or not rated highly enough for your liking, and you want to submit an appeal (Note: VSOs can also help you with appeals). They may have more experience in handling these specific situations and can offer more personalized attention.  VA Board of Appeals data show that in 2021, attorneys were more successful during appeals than agents or VSOs.

Some veterans choose to use one of these services when they have tried using a VSO in the past but weren’t happy with the result.

What is a “claims shark?”

Many companies who pitch their services to veterans offer relatively reasonable fees and are transparent about how these fees are structured. Unfortunately, alongside most VA-accredited or unaccredited for-profit entities (who provide genuine support at a reasonable fee), there's also a lurking threat: claims sharks. 

Claims sharks are individuals or companies, without VA accreditation, who exploit veterans by charging exorbitant fees to advise veterans on filing claims. These claims sharks take advantage of veterans, with predatory practices like burying fees in complex legal contracts. 

In March 2024, several national veterans’ groups, including VFW, Wounded Warrior Project, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Blue Star Families, testified about claims sharks at a joint hearing of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees. According to the American Legion, “Unaccredited claims companies target veterans with fees as high as 600% of any future increase in their monthly VA benefits … leaving [veterans] with minimal compensation after legal fees are applied.” 

In one lawsuit, a Maryland consultancy is accused of charging an Air Force veteran a fee of five times the increase in his monthly disability benefits. In another, an Army veteran experiencing PTS claims a North Carolina firm used deceptive practices and charged her five times her monthly benefits increase as well. 

Because of the risk of excessive fees, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough advises veterans not to use for-profit services and to go to free, accredited VA partners instead. 

Veterans’ reviews of for-profit entities are mixed. In a 2024 MRC poll, 2 in 3 veterans who said they had paid for support with their disability claim said they were happy with the service they received. In comparison, 4 in 5 veterans who used a free service said they were happy with that service. 

How do you spot a claims shark? 

Weeding out claims sharks from legitimate service providers can be complicated. The first thing to do is to verify if a lawyer or agent is accredited by the VA by searching the VA accreditation index. 

Claims sharks typically target veterans through aggressive ad campaigns, especially social media ads. They may engage in the following fraudulent or unethical practices

  • Guarantee an increased disability rating or percentage increase

  • Advertise expedited VA claims decisions

  • Request login credentials to a veteran’s personal VA information

  • Advise veterans to forego VA medical exams and refer veterans to their own network of doctors instead.

In addition, the law prevents lawyers from charging for assistance in filing an initial claim for VA disability benefits. A lawyer can only charge for assistance in an appeal. If an attorney is advertising their service for an initial claim, be wary. 

How is Congress protecting veterans from claims sharks? 

Congress is considering two pieces of legislation to protect veterans from claims sharks.

By law, individuals and companies can’t assist veterans in preparing their claims for disability benefits without accreditation from the VA Office of General Counsel, and they also can’t charge for those initial claims. But according to the VFW, the existing law is not enforceable, because it lacks criminal penalties.

The first piece of legislation, the Governing Unaccredited Representatives Defrauding VA Benefits Act (the GUARD VA Benefits Act) would make it punishable by law to solicit or receive payment for preparing a veteran’s disability claim. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Senator Jon Tester (Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee), has strong support from veterans’ organizations like the VFW.

The PLUS Act for Veterans, on the other hand, is more measured than the GUARD Act. It would allow for-profit entities to assist veterans, but would require them to receive VA accreditation first. It would only be a criminal act to continue serving veterans without this accreditation.  

Supporters of the PLUS Act say veterans should continue to have options when it comes to claims. Many veterans are okay with paying a fee for these services and should not be limited by law to only using not-for-profit organizations. 

Takeaways: What to consider when using for-profit entities

  • You can file claims free of charge using VSO organizations like American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Amvets, and more. You do not need to be a member. 

  • While for-profit entities do charge fees, many are transparent and want to provide a legitimate service. Pay attention to the fee structure to avoid predatory practices. 

  • Verify any claim agents and attorneys through the VA’s accreditation portal.

In conclusion, you can file your disability claim directly with the VA yourself, or you can use the services of an outside entity, like a VSO (for free) or a for-profit entity (for a fee). Each choice has advantages and disadvantages. 

Most importantly, make sure you protect yourself: never pay for a service without being entirely sure what you are being charged and what you are receiving in return. 

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1 Comment

Ernest Henderson
Ernest Henderson
May 13

It's about time you wrote this article many vets needed it.The va needs to do a much better job of approval of claims it's exhausting the wait time

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