A local Veterans Services official is cautioning veterans and their families that for-profit companies cropping up across the country are charging hefty prices for services that are offered for free through the government.
When 88-year-old Pat Pardue, the widow of a World War II Navy veteran, realized she needed assistance to continue living in her home in Columbia Falls, she and her daughter sought help through the Veterans Affairs pension program.
Directed by a friend, Pardue applied for the program with the help of a St. Louis-based organization called Veterans Care Coordination, LLC. The company promised to help Pardue apply for her pension and set up in-home care services for her.
When Pardue and her daughter attempted to leave the company’s services a year later, however, they received a letter from a law firm in Missouri.
“You are delinquent in your payment obligations to our client,” the letter stated. “Be advised that our client has instructed us to aggressively pursue this matter until its natural conclusion, even if litigation becomes necessary.”
Fearful of what the letter foretold, Pardue and Brown reached out to Kalispell-based Montana Veterans Services Officer Bryan Zipp.
Zipp helps veterans and their families apply for the benefits they need through Veterans Affairs.
According to the United States Code Title 38-Veterans’ Benefits, the pension Pardue receives is protected by law, much the same way as Social Security, exempt from taxation, claim of creditors, levy and seizure by any legal or equitable process whatsoever.
Since 2015, Zipp has, at no charge, helped families with the same services offered by Veterans Care Coordination, including assistance with pension application and with setting up care-giving services.
In November 2017, Pardue knew nothing about the free services, so when a friend who also used Veterans Care Coordination suggested the company to her, she tapped into the company’s services.
Under the contract she signed, Pardue understood the company would help her apply for her pension and then set up care services through a third-party provider.
For one year, Pardue said, the company sent her $400 a month to pay for care. The provider Veterans Care selected to administer in-home care designated her daughter, Brown, as her caregiver.
About a year later, Brown said she got a call from a company agent, demanding that her mother write out a check for the $400 benefit to her daughter each month.
“I couldn’t figure out what kind of practice that was,” Brown said. “And I didn’t care for his aggressiveness with me at all.”
Red flags began to crop up, they said, prompting the women to reach out to the VA for answers. There they found Zipp, who started digging.
Pardue had not realized until then that her full pension should have come to just over $1,100 each month, despite the fact that she received less than half that amount.
Even after the in-home care was in place, the company continued to charge a large monthly “fee” before passing on the remainder of the pension to Pardue.
“And they weren’t doing anything,” Pardue alleged.
“I don’t begrudge anybody getting paid for what they do, but that $400 check a month just didn’t gel and I stopped trusting them then,” Brown said.
When Zipp reached out to the VA on her behalf, they responded, saying the money legally belonged to Pardue and she could do with it as she wished, according to Zipp.
Pardue then notified the company she no longer wished to work with them and immediately stopped all payments to the company.
Then came the letter.
According to her contract with Veterans’ Care Coordination, Pardue was required to give the company 30 days written notice before discontinuing services. Pardue and Brown estimated they were about 10 days short of that deadline.
Based on the contract, Zipp said the company had a legal right to go after the women for the payment, but he said he doubts the legality of the contract altogether.
As an accredited power of attorney through the Office of General Council, Zipp took over all communication between the women and Aegis Law, the legal firm representing the veterans care company.
The following correspondence between Zipp and the company’s legal counsel got heated as Zipp confronted Aegis attorney Nicholas Schopp about the legality of the company’s action toward his clients.
When Zipp refused to hand over his clients’ identity and information to Schopp without their permission, asking instead for a meeting with the attorney to discuss the issue, Schopp continued to insist on Zipp’s provision of power of attorney and client information before finally blocking Zipp altogether.
Schopp responded to a request for comment on the case, stating he was not familiar with the details of the case because Zipp refused to provide any identifying information, but said neither Aegis Law nor Veterans Care Coordination, LLC, had pursued any legal action in the state of Montana.
Zipp reached out to Montana’s U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines in hopes their influence might bring about a change in policy that would prohibit what Tester described as “pension poaching.”
“If these agencies are not telling them that this is a free benefit we’re going to help you apply for, we’re going to take a portion of your free benefit, I just don’t understand how they can get away with it,” Zipp said.
The responses Zipp received from both senators in regards to Pardue’s case informed him they agree with him.
“Crooks who rip off veterans or their loved ones by poaching their benefits are the lowest form of life,” Tester said. “I will continue to seek policies that provide the VA with the tools they need to protect vulnerable veterans and their family members.”
The biggest problem, according to Tester, is that “pension poaching” is technically not against the VA’s rules, which allow veterans to make their own financial decisions.
Pardue and Brown said they hope their experience will encourage other veterans and their families to research their options before choosing services.
© 2019 the Daily Inter Lake (Kalispell, Mont.)
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