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Veterans can get free help filing for benefits. Scammers are charging them thousands

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The VA wants veterans to know about the PACT Act. That law expands benefits for veterans exposed to toxic chemicals. At the same time, federal officials are trying to crack down on companies that promise to help veterans with claims, then leave them with thousands of dollars in fees. Steve Walsh with member station WHRO in Norfolk reports.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: In 2019, Erica Fernandez joined the Navy. She eventually became a parachute rigger. The work was physical and demanding. She ended up on the crew of the Navy's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald Ford. But a series of ailments began piling up.

ERICA FERNANDEZ: I have melanoma in my right eye, going blind in it. I'm also going deaf in my right ear, and I have deteriorating discs in my lower back and many other medical conditions. So when I didn't pass my last physical, they went ahead and discharged me.

WALSH: At 26 years old, she was medically separated from the service. She began applying for disability benefits through the VA. Fernandez has binders full of medical records spread out on her couch in Portsmouth, Va. All that documentation helped her prove that some of her disabilities were service-connected.

FERNANDEZ: When I first got out, I immediately went ahead and put my claim in - no waiting at all. It was almost instant. I looked at the claim. I was reading it more and more fine print, and I realized I didn't have half of my disabilities on there.

WALSH: She lost her appeal to add additional disabilities to her claim. Denials are not uncommon in the VA system, but they can put a tremendous stress on the limited income of people like Fernandez and her spouse.

FERNANDEZ: I gave up. I completely gave up. We gave up to the point where we sat here for roughly, I want to say, a year with a $1,500 a month income. We were losing our house. We were losing our car.

WALSH: That's when she got a call from a company that said they were run by veterans and they would help with her appeal.

FERNANDEZ: If you don't get any increase, we don't charge you. But if you do get an increase, we take one-third of your back pay. And I was like, OK. You know what? That's that's fair because I need a lot of help.

WALSH: Several months later, she got another call from the company. The VA had declared her 100% disabled.

FERNANDEZ: I dropped the phone. I hit the floor. The back pay was going to save our house. The back pay was going to save our car.

WALSH: Then she got the bill. The VA had granted her $11,000 in back benefits, but the company was charging her $10,000.

FERNANDEZ: How are they able to file on my behalf and then turn around and take absolutely everything that was given to me?

WALSH: In response to an inquiry by NPR, the Veterans Administration says the Arizona-based Vetlink Solutions is not accredited by the VA. Legally, the company cannot charge a fee to help veterans file appeals. The VA has sent two cease and desist orders to the company. The company has not responded to our requests for comment. Since Congress passed the PACT Act in 2022, which allows millions of veterans to qualify for benefits, the number of cases involving fraud has risen.

JAMES SMITH: It's unbelievable how I feel like they're robbing the veterans, you know, for services that should have been given to them for free.

WALSH: James Smith is the post commander at the Disabled American Veterans chapter in Portsmouth and a senior vice commander in Virginia. Fernandez came to him after she got the bill. He wishes she had come to him first.

SMITH: You know, come to the right source. It's come to the VSOs, the veterans service organizations, here that are doing the jobs right. We have voluntary services, so we don't charge you fees.

WALSH: Places like the DAV, American Legion, VFW and many states and counties will file the paperwork for veterans without charge. The VA and the white House have been standing up efforts to educate veterans about companies that charge high fees. At the moment, Smith says people like Fernandez who sign contracts may be on the hook. In a written statement, the VA says it recommends vets who think they've been defrauded to contact their state's attorney general or federal law enforcement. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Walsh | WHRO