Yesterday, a VA Vocational Rehab insider spilled the beans on a secret policy change inside VR&E that, if true, is handcuffing counselors and harming veterans.
Just three years ago, VA Voc Rehab announced proudly that it was pushing self-employment for disabled veterans in the program. One VA OIG investigation later, VR&E has possibly changed course to the detriment of veterans in secret.
Allegations have surfaced that VA Voc Rehab is reversing its position in the worst way about the benefit and gaining approval for self-employment. Veterans from Maine to California have reported unusual antics of VA Voc Rehab Counselors that are in clear violation of VA laws, regulations, and guidance.
We will touch on this and more here today. Hi and welcome to another edition Monday Morning Quarterback for Veterans. I am Benjamin Krause, founder of DisabledVeterans.org.
This MMQB will focus on self-employment and the secret policies VA is running behind the scenes:
- My beef with VR&E on self-employment
- VR&E’s 180 on self-employment
- VA employee spills the beans
- Beware of VA trolls on social media
My current beef with VR&E on self-employment
At one time, VR&E officials bragged up how the program was going to lead the way for veteran entrepreneurship for those who qualified. The big push came after VA clarified the regulations to allow all disabled veterans who applied for self-employment to get the option so long as it was feasible, in 2010. You can see the decision on the Federal Register.
Three years ago, I met with former Director Ruth Fanning in New Orleans for the first time. We had never met before, but she knew quite well who I was.
In 2009, I helped CBS Evening News with Katie Couric investigate Chapter 31 Voc Rehab. They found me on Facebook after I started the group Disabled Veterans – Chapter 31 Voc Rehab, and the group served as a social conduit for finding veterans upset with the program in much the same way the website DisabledVeterans.org does now.
That first meeting began a discussion of how Vocational Rehab was planning to help disabled veterans start businesses using the program. VA allocated millions to build out a two programs through the VA Center for Innovation. The first was a virtual program by Beltway contractor Halfaker and Associates called VetSEA. VA separately engaged a Milwaukee-based brick and mortar incubator called Vetransfer.
As I understand it, the Halfaker program went the way of the Dodo. The Vetransfer program is still growing but outside of the confines of VA’s defunct self-employment initiatives.
In 2013, the Center for Innovation was plagued with one scandal after another related to unapproved spending and potentially fraudulent activities. Sources have indicated that VA has now fully backed off from supporting self-employment for new entrepreneurs. Instead, they point to SBA for guidance.
Enter the law by way of regulations – 38 CFR § 21.257. VA Voc Rehab is required to approve veterans for self-employment so long as it is feasible. Two kinds of disabled veterans can be approved. Category 1 veterans are considered the “most severely disabled veterans.” Of course, “most severely disabled” is not defined by VA. This group of veterans can receive up to $100,000 for funding for their program. Funding usually covers things like equipment, supplies, and business related training.
The other group is Category 2. This group covers disabled veterans where self-employment is feasible following a comprehensive evaluation. They qualify for much of the same thing as Level 1 veterans except they cannot get extensive training, and their plan will usually be capped at $25,000.
This would all be great if VA Vocational Rehab followed the law, but rumor has it, there was a recent secret change internal to VA that the outside world does not know about.
VR&E’s 180 on self-employment
So again, VR&E claimed it was pushing self-employment when reasonable as recently as 2012. One company, Veteranscorp, even published an article titled, “VA will try to Push Self-Employment Track in Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment (VRE) Program.” VRE counselors were supposedly getting trained up in helping entrepreneurial veterans set up small businesses.
Unfortunately, over the past three months, rumors have surfaced throughout the country that VR&E is enacting secret rules about self-employment and other parts of the program that have come under fire. Veterans are not able to gain approval and are even being told that self-employment is only for the most severely disabled veterans. This is, of course, a knowingly false statement until VR&E changes the regulations as published at the Federal Register.
Here is what I think happened. In 2012, VA OIG investigated self-employment. They found that the program was terribly mismanaged. Voc Rehab Counselors did not understand how to administer or measure the program. Counselors were not monitoring expenditures. It was a big mess. OIG recommended better checks and more training.
Instead, if what insiders claim is true, what resulted is VA now severely cut back on access to the benefits. Rather than resolving VA’s issues, they are now stating that only the most severely disabled veterans can use the program. However, since this is not what the regulations say, nor VA’s internal guidance that is public, any claims to this effect could be construed as nothing short of fraud against veterans.
Why is it fraud? It is fraud because a VA employee is making a knowingly false statement for the purpose of tricking a veteran into accepting less than what they would normally receive. When a veteran is in Voc Rehab, their benefits are the equivalent of property. Thus, veterans are wrongly being denied their property.
What is the gain for VA? Counselors have reduced paperwork, higher bonuses, and quicker rehab rates.
Even if fraud does not fly, it is certainly a violation of procedural due process.
According to a recent spill by a VA Voc Rehab employee on social media (below), VA Voc Rehab is no longer allowed to adjudicate veteran self-employment claims. Instead, it has been alleged that VR&E now outsources all of its decision making relating to that part of the benefit. However, nothing is written in the 38 CFR or M28R manual that allows VA to do this.
The decisions are being made without allowing the veteran to meet with the person making the decision. Veterans are not getting notice of the rules VA is following. Further, VA Vocational Rehab is not telling veterans what is going on. So, there is a secret process by which veterans are being denied benefits in the form of the self-employment track. What else is new?
VA employee spills the beans
So this brings me to specifically telling you what I have heard. Some of you may remember that I posted an article recently called Rumors about VR&E Self-Employment. This article really torqued at least one VA insider yesterday.
According to a VA Voc Rehab employee (either present or past employee), VRE counselors are no longer allowed to make decisions about self-employment. While she was a little pissed about my comments about VA secrecy, she may have dumped on exactly what the problem is. Here is part of what she said:
“You do realize Ben, that Voc Rehab can no longer make the decision about self employment?!! That was not their choice. All self employment cases are sent off to have the decision made elsewhere-to people who are not even counselors in the program! Dig on that-NOT on Voc Rehab!! And yes THEY (not Voc Rehab) are making it harder to get approved. So I don’t think it’s a matter of being told to deny them, it’s more on the line that Voc Rehab is no longer the one allowed to approving self employment!”
I take issue with this and here is why. We will stop hammering on VR&E when it starts complying with its regulations and guidance. It is not legal for VA to create regulations that it only applies when it is convenient for VA, veteran’s rights be damned. We do not know if the above is true, and she did not disclose that she was affiliated with VR&E when she posted the comment. If it is true, VA should expect legal action shortly.
Curious about her comments? Go to our Facebook group, you can read the full statement by searching for “Amber O’Geay” (she is affiliated with VR&E Fargo – either present or recent past employee).
Secret changes like this would be fine if VA were a regular business that could make business decisions without complying with laws and the Constitution. Sadly for VA, its decision to not follow the law is putting its employees at risk. VA employees are at risk for misleading veterans about what the law says and in so doing coercing these veterans into accepting fewer benefits that are not quite as good a fit as self-employment. It is not within anyone’s scope of employment to intentionally deceive a client.
If any employee of a government entity makes a statement that the law says anything other than what it says, and they know, they are making a knowingly false statement. In certain situations, this could be construed as fraud. Luckily, all VA Voc Rehab Counselors are supposed to have a working knowledge of VRE laws, regulations and guidance.
Other veterans have told me stories where they overheard VA conference calls on the subject. There, is is alleged that higher-ups told local employees that VA changed its position on self-employment. If true, the changes have been done totally in secret and without following legal processes such as publishing the change on the Federal Register.
Regardless, to mislead a veteran about what the law says regardless of the fact that your supervisors are advising you to mislead veterans is not legal. For those VA employees who snoop this cite, please be aware of this fact. Your management may be exposing you to liability where DOJ may not be able to represent you.
If the rumors are true, only the most severely disabled veterans can get self-employment so long as no one holds VRE accountable. Sadly, during the conference call, it was stated that this conclusion forecloses any veteran from using self-employment.
VA Snooping on Social Media
This leads me to my final comment for this MMQB. The above example is just one instance of many where VA employees have been caught making statements critical of advocates where only later did it surface that they work for VA.
When fired up, they tend to make singular ad hominem attacks against the person rather than against the argument. These tactics are a signal that the attacker is standing on intellectual quicksand.
Nonetheless, when using social media, be aware that VA has enormous resources at its disposal that allow it to set up different troll accounts and to spy even on what veterans are saying regarding life and benefits. Sadly, this kind of spying will “chill speech” but I only write this to strongly caution all veterans to be very careful about what they post on Facebook and other platforms.
We are looking into ways of developing secure channels for veterans to use forums for advice and help with each other while keeping out VA trolls, and a new platform will be rolled out in a couple months.
As for VA’s online budget, they spend thousands every day to outrank websites like ours so that veterans only find VA websites when they search for the truth. Here are a couple examples of how much VA is apparently spending on advertising online daily for two of its websites:
$2k-$16k per day http://www.spyfu.com/Domain/202526867758624341
What do you think?