Congress will likely pass legislation this year to limit attorney’s fees for certain veterans benefits work to protect vets from being bilked by unscrupulous attorneys, according to Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. While veterans technically don’t have to pay anything to file a claim, some lawyers say they can simplify the complicated process and make sure claims aren’t rejected - services that can cost thousands of dollars.
“We have to make sure that ruthless folks out there don’t unnecessarily and for no good reason take some of these benefits from our veterans,” Tester said. “There are going to be bills put up that give the veteran choices, but also protection.”
Tester made the comments during an appearance at the American Legion’s Washington Conference Tuesday, where hundreds of veterans gather annually to lobby lawmakers on group priorities. He acknowledged that several proposals to cap attorney fees have already been floated in Congress and said he expects a compromise to be reached on the issue in coming months.
At issue are new benefits and legal rights included in the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (better known as the PACT Act) that was signed into law last August. The law includes almost $300 billion in new financial benefits for veterans suffering from illnesses caused by burn pit smoke in Iraq and Afghanistan, Agent Orange spraying in Vietnam, and several other military toxic exposure events.
It also included provisions allowing civil suits against the government for injuries related to water contamination at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base from August 1953 to December 1987.
Since last summer, numerous television and radio advertisements from legal firms have promised windfalls for veterans who served at the base and file a claim through their offices. But Veterans Affairs officials and veterans service organizations have warned that those lawsuits may not result in new payouts, and veterans could lose money by suing the government.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, offered a similar proposal late last year to cap lawyers fees related to the Camp Lejeune lawsuits, but was blocked by Tester and others who said they didn’t want to rush the issue.
However, veterans groups have warned that without some protections, individuals may be victimized by unscrupulous attorneys.
In recent weeks, lawmakers have filed a series of new proposals following Sullivan’s idea.
As Tester made his remarks, a group including House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Mark Takano, D-Calif., unveiled the Protect Access to Justice for Veterans Act, which would prohibit lawyers from taking more than one-third of any payout related to the Camp Lejeune lawsuits.
Earlier this month, a group of House and Senate Republicans including House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., introduced the Victims Ensnared by Trial-lawyers’ Scams (VETS) Act, which would similarly cap attorney fees for settlements at 17%.
Tester said he expects even more proposals in weeks to come. He said he is unsure if the issue will be dealt with through his committee or the Senate Judiciary Committee, but said he expected positive movement on the ideas soon.
“We’re already working on some stuff,” he said. “The bottom line is we want to make sure that veterans have a choice … but also that they are treated fairly.”
VA officials are encouraging all veterans and families with questions regarding the Camp Lejeune lawsuits to call their information line at 1-800-827-1000 or visit their web page on the issue.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.