Last week, a bill in the Florida legislature aimed at reeling in unaccredited claims companies passed unanimously in a key committee.
The legislation – HB 1351— would impose state penalties for companies unlawfully assisting veterans with their claims. (Such practices are broadly banned on the federal level, though criminal penalties were mysteriously removed in 2006, leaving the government largely toothless to punish bad actors. The industry has since reaped billions in illegal profits from hundreds of thousands of veterans.
It was introduced by state Reps. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat, and Michelle Salzman, a Republican who is also an Army veteran. “The intention of this bill is to ensure that organizations that are not accredited cannot offer services with exorbitant fees,” Eskamani said in remarks before the committee. Rep. Salzman added that unaccredited agents “manipulate the system,” sometimes pushing for veterans to claim benefits to which they are not entitled in order to secure a maximum payout.
This policy work in Florida is the most recent move in a state-by-state campaign to regulate the veterans claims process. Last summer, New Jersey became the first state in the nation to make it illegal for unaccredited businesses to charge veterans to file claims. In 2021, Louisiana’s attorney general secured a permanent injunction against an unaccredited veteran claims company there. late last year, the Texas attorney general sued an Austin-based claims company, following an investigation from VHPI Fellow Jasper Craven.
Such initiatives exist amidst a Congressional logjam. Lawmakers have floated dueling bills to address this proliferation of unaccredited actors. One proposal, the GUARD VA Benefits Act, would reimpose fines and criminal penalties for unaccredited claims companies. The legislation has drawn support from major veterans groups, the VA, and 44 state attorneys general.
The alternative proposal – the PLUS Act – would essentially permit unaccredited actors to continue offering their services. So far, little has happened, thanks largely to an infusion of cash and lobbying from the unaccredited industry. In this vacuum, the states have stepped in.
“Though the Claim Sharks have been getting away with harming veterans for quite some time, it seems that state leaders are keen to the scheme,” said Ryan Gallucci, executive director of the Washington D.C. office of the VFW. “This isn’t surprising since each state operates its own accredited benefits assistance program and state legislatures are well-versed in what ‘right’ looks like when helping veterans navigate their earned benefits.”
One of the major forces advocating for unaccredited companies is the National Association of Veterans Rights, a shadowy trade group run by Peter O’Rourke, a former senior VA official in the Trump administration.
In his testimony before the Florida committee, O’Rourke called HB 1351 a “misguided bill” that would deprive veterans of choice and opportunity. Along the way, he inaccurately claimed there was a VA inventory of 3 million cases – it’s one million. He also insisted that his organization has set pioneering standards for the unaccredited firms who belong to his trade organization, though he’s so far declined to name these member companies or make his proposed regulations public.
Rep. Salzman expressed frustration over O’Rourke’s remarks, telling the Florida committee “I wish people would be a little more honest about their presentations.” Gallucci, for his part, said he was grateful that lawmakers “thoroughly dismantled [O’Rourke’s] tired rhetoric to unanimously advance the bill.”