Jim Peckey was a younger Navy petty officer stationed in Bahrain when the 9/11 assaults occurred. Because the nation went on a struggle footing, he all of a sudden shifted from administrative and IT duties to lugging water and tools 12 hours a day, seven days per week — work that left him with persistent neck and again ache. He retired in 2002 however he postpone making use of for advantages as a result of, like tens of millions of veterans, he felt overwhelmed by the paperwork required.
That modified in 2020, when he watched a YouTube video wherein a fellow veteran, Brian T. Reese, promised to assist veterans navigate the advantages maze and lead “happier, more healthy and wealthier” lives.
Peckey signed on as a buyer with Reese’s firm, Austin-based VA Claims Insider. The 44-year-old Abilene resident, who now does IT work for a protection contractor, stated he was charged practically $10,000 for about six hours of teaching, a few of which included watching pre-recorded on-line informational classes with as many as 400 different attendees at a time.
Though Peckey did get a month-to-month incapacity test of round $1,500, he felt he was charged for data he might have discovered on the web. To assist him qualify for advantages, the corporate’s coach pushed him to emphasise psychological misery, Peckey stated, though what he thought of that to be a “backseat concern” and wished top-notch look after his persistent bodily ache.
“Nothing in need of a nightmare,” he wrote in a December 2021 criticism filed with the Texas lawyer normal’s workplace, wherein he accused the corporate of “slimy automotive gross sales techniques” and “defrauding veterans out of their advantages.” Peckey stated he wished to sue however couldn’t discover a lawyer to tackle the case. He refused to pay VA Claims Insider, which then employed a group company to pursue his debt; he says he felt so strongly concerning the matter that he accepted the hit to his credit score rating.
In one other criticism, Shana Hill, the spouse of a Marine Corps veteran in Houston, stated their coach “confirmed late and was disorganized and didn’t present any technique as marketed and promised.” One other veteran, Simon Keller of Tucson, Arizona, estimated that he had paid practically $8,000 for 2 hours of help and claimed the corporate was “extorting” veterans.
The Texas Tribune spoke with 5 of a dozen or so individuals who complained to the Texas lawyer normal about VA Claims Insider. All stated the state hadn’t meaningfully adopted up on their considerations. Peckey, the Abilene veteran, stated that the workplace prompt that he rent a personal lawyer, or discuss to the Higher Enterprise Bureau.
Learn the complaints made to the Texas lawyer normal’s workplace. (8.2 MB)
It’s not solely the lawyer normal’s workplace that acquired complaints about VA Claims Insider. The Federal Commerce Fee has gotten two dozen complaints, and the Higher Enterprise Bureau properly over 100.
Final fall, after the Tribune started asking questions, the Texas lawyer normal’s shopper safety bureau requested VA Claims Insider for paperwork for an “investigation” over doubtlessly “partaking in misleading acts within the sale of packages to assist and/or help shoppers in making incapacity claims to the U.S. Division of Veterans Affairs.”
It seems that in 2019, the VA’s Workplace of Common Counsel instructed the corporate in a letter that it “could also be engaged in unlawful actions, which embrace the unauthorized illustration of claimants for VA advantages and charging them on your service,” and that it, absent an ample response, the corporate must “stop any and all unlawful actions.” It additionally warned the Texas lawyer normal’s workplace that Reese’s teaching efforts are clearly meant to “sport the system.”
Not lengthy after, VA Claims Insider employed a regulation agency to carry out an inner danger evaluation. The evaluation, obtained by the Tribune, raised considerations that its work may very well be construed as illegally aiding with claims preparation: “We can not give VACI assurance that the enterprise mannequin and present contracts won’t be reviewed, investigated, and challenged by regulatory authorities (or prosecutors) empowered to take action, or that if challenged, VACI will prevail.” It additionally really helpful new insurance policies to totally defend the corporate in opposition to potential allegations of kickbacks, monetary fraud and different points.
Learn the request from the Texas lawyer normal’s workplace for details about VA Claims Insider’s enterprise practices. (9.2 MB)
Exterior Texas, different for-profit claims corporations have gotten scrutiny, too. In 2021, Louisiana’s lawyer normal secured a everlasting injunction in opposition to an unaccredited veteran claims firm there. Final October, the Federal Commerce Fee reminded veterans that they don’t must pay for assist getting advantages. The alert additionally warned of scammers who emphasize their army service to “achieve your belief so that you received’t cease and ask questions on their pitches.”
For this story, the Tribune reviewed inner firm paperwork, shopper complaints and authorities emails and interviewed greater than 25 present and former purchasers and coaches of VA Claims Insider. Some requested anonymity, citing nondisclosure agreements and worry of being sued.
VA Claims Insider says its materials is consumed by 600,000 veterans every month, that 25,000 veterans have participated in its “paid membership packages” and that the overwhelming majority are happy prospects. A spokesperson, Jeff Eller, stated that Peckey and different prospects had made “exaggerated or unfounded complaints” to keep away from fee, pointed to dozens of optimistic consumer critiques and stated the Tribune was cherry-picking proof to place the corporate in a adverse mild. Reese inspired purchasers to share their tales with the Tribune, and some dozen reached out, principally with optimistic suggestions.
Eller stated the corporate “operates properly throughout the regulation” and “is healthier immediately than ever earlier than.” He added: “VA Claims Insider has been conducting inner danger evaluation because it launched in 2016, and nonetheless does. We’re deeply troubled that confidential and privileged supplies have been disclosed.” He stated the corporate launched a code of conduct in January 2021 and up to date and expanded it in August 2022; coaches now undergo obligatory coaching and a probationary interval.
Byzantine claims system
Greater than 1.8 million veterans have some type of formally acknowledged incapacity because of service within the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Furthermore, a brand new federal regulation, the Honoring Our PACT Act, expanded advantages for tens of millions of veterans disabled by army burn pits and different poisonous exposures courting again to the Vietnam Conflict. For the reason that regulation was signed final August, 560,000 claims have been filed below the act, and there may very well be as much as one million extra. Many of those claims are coming from Texas vets via the VA’s Waco and Houston workplaces, that are immediately experiencing among the most extreme claims backlogs in America.
Whereas civilians might assume that army service robotically confers entry to authorities care and advantages, most veterans should navigate a sequence of extremely particular and consistently evolving statutes that dictate who’s eligible for help and learn how to show eligibility. To get advantages, most veterans must file a incapacity declare and safe a incapacity score — a quantity from zero to 100. The upper the quantity, the extra care and compensation a veteran receives. Paul Sullivan, a Gulf Conflict veteran and veteran advocate in Rockville, Maryland, described this technique as an “adversarial, advanced, and burdensome claims nightmare.”
Historically, the VA accredited three forms of claims representatives: brokers, attorneys and veteran service organizations just like the Veterans of Overseas Wars and the American Legion. The attorneys and brokers cost charges on a tightly regulated scale. The service organizations present their companies at no cost, as does the Texas Veterans Fee, which additionally employs accredited brokers.
Because the veteran inhabitants ages and shrinks, so too are the organizations which have historically watched out for vets. Whereas veterans’ teams had practically 10,000 accredited claims brokers 5 years in the past, immediately there are simply over 6,500.
The VA Workplace of Common Counsel trains, checks and regulates the brokers. Accredited claims brokers bear background checks. Earlier than charging for companies, they have to additionally submit detailed payment agreements to the federal government to be scrutinized and authorised as honest.
With savvy on-line abilities and massive advertising budgets, unaccredited corporations like VA Claims Insider have promised to assist veterans from the sidelines — whereas imposing charges far larger than what the accredited brokers can cost.
As a result of Reese and his coaches are unaccredited, they face none of this scrutiny and are free to cost what they like. Reese calls VA Claims Insider an training firm.
Learn the Division of Veterans Affairs 2019 letter notifying VA Claims Insider of its considerations. (1.4 MB)
For many years, federal regulation penalized unaccredited actors who charged veterans for “making ready, presenting, or prosecuting claims earlier than the VA.” Whereas laws nonetheless prohibit such habits, all felony penalties had been faraway from federal statutes in 2006, leaving the VA basically toothless to go after unhealthy actors. (Accredited representatives, nevertheless, stay liable to be investigated and, if acceptable, disbarred when a veteran complains.)
Accredited representatives are flummoxed as to why veterans are in search of dearer, unaccredited coaches like Reese moderately than their free or far cheaper companies.
Richard W. Rousseau, a retired Military colonel and an accredited veterans claims lawyer from Harker Heights, in Central Texas, was alarmed by VA Claims Insiders’ contract language and payment construction. He calculated the corporate costs purchasers roughly $8,000 if their incapacity score jumps by 10%. “My payment can be about $1,600,” he stated.
Reese himself secured free accredited claims help from AmVets, a veterans group. He has stated he appreciates accredited brokers and infrequently refers veterans to their companies. But in consumer seminars, he has broadly forged the accredited agent as somebody who “doesn’t care and hurts your score.” His firm’s contracts prohibit coaches from referring purchasers to accredited brokers. In a current TikTok video, Reese urged sad veterans to “fireplace” their free, accredited representatives. (Eller, the corporate spokesperson, stated Reese “merely repeats what’s well-known within the veteran group” — that many accredited brokers are “overworked, underpaid, undertrained, and underappreciated.”)
Some veterans instructed the Tribune that they turned to Reese after accredited brokers failed them. Others had been completely satisfied to pay steep costs for assist getting beneficiant advantages. Ronald A. Conaway Jr., who lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, stated he used VA Claims Insider after dealing with delays with an accredited advocate on the Disabled American Veterans, a century-old, congressionally chartered veterans’ group.
“My coach ought to have been extra communicative and proactive,” stated Conaway, who reached out to the Tribune at Reese’s encouragement, explaining that he’d generally need to e-mail his coach at VA Claims Insider 4 instances earlier than getting a response. Conaway stated he paid roughly $8,000 for about six hours of help, however was “ecstatic” that he’d secured a score increase in only a few months. “If I needed to do it once more, I’d do it once more,” he stated.
Troy Thompson of Woodland, California, one other former consumer Reese referred to the Tribune, stated he initially felt the corporate’s $8,000 payment was “an excessive amount of,” however concluded it was worthwhile after seeing his score soar from 70 to 100.
A 3rd happy consumer, Invoice Lonegran of Simi Valley, California, agreed: “The cost was a bit excessive, however I’d been coping with the VA for years. They usually helped me.”
Claims points are particularly acute in Texas. Knowledge exhibits that almost 6,000 Texas vets (or roughly 9%) of the 67,000 or so vets who sought assist at state declare workplaces in 2020 went unseen — which means many possible sought help elsewhere.
Whereas its precise variety of purchasers in Texas is unclear, VA Claims Insider makes aggressive appeals to Texas veterans, together with via e-mail blasts, on-line ads and steerage mentioning Texas-specific veteran advantages, which embrace free school at state colleges, property tax exemptions and residential enchancment loans. Different unaccredited declare corporations have additionally zeroed in on Texas. One is Veterans Guardian, which lists 2,202 Texas purchasers, greater than any state after North Carolina, the place that firm relies. It too has acquired authorities scrutiny.
Reese’s web site and written supplies are dotted with disclaimers that neither he nor his firm are replicating the companies of accredited brokers. And but some consider that his coaches are illegally “making ready” a declare. In a doc submitted to the Texas lawyer normal, a VA official wrote that Reese, in a 2017 video, “flatly admits” that, for the precise worth, “we do your whole incapacity declare for you.” The video has since been taken down.
“We had been logging in to their accounts and mainly doing claims for them,” one former coach who insisted on anonymity instructed the Tribune. Purchasers described the method in ways in which raised comparable pink flags. In a criticism to the lawyer normal, a veteran from Tomball named Michael Warner stated he did his declare step-by-step “as instructed” by his coach. He additionally stated that his coach filed a separate declare kind with out his data or consent.
Peckey and different purchasers have additionally complained that coaches with VA Claims Insider steered them away from claims involving bodily illnesses, favoring situations like somatic symptom dysfunction, which is characterised by excessive anxiousness or extreme fear over one’s well being. “They had been preventing me, telling me what’s improper with me,” Peckey instructed the Tribune. “The precedence was being pushed on probably the most profitable declare, not the ache I used to be feeling. Ultimately I went with the circulation.”
Derick Jordan, a veteran from Wylie, instructed the lawyer normal’s workplace that his coach “insisted” he tie his incapacity score to psychological well being points as a result of it was “best to show” and had “extra worth” — for Jordan and for the corporate. “VA Claims Insider makes use of misleading practices to reap the benefits of veterans to extend their backside line,” he defined in a handwritten criticism.
A present worker, who spoke on situation of anonymity, additionally stated that Reese’s enterprise urges veterans to magnify psychological well being claims. “It’s, ‘Oh, you damage your ankle, does that make you depressed and anxious?’”
Eller, the spokesperson, stated, “Bodily situations are taken simply as significantly as psychological situations.”
At a U.S. Home Veterans Affairs Committee listening to in April 2022, Richard J. Hipolit, the VA’s deputy normal counsel for veterans packages, prompt that unaccredited brokers may very well be prosecuted by the Division for Justice for “producing proof that was fraudulent, or no matter, in assist of claims.”
Constructing a claims empire
Reese, 39, constructed his model round a story of wrestle and redemption. He grew up in Pillager, a small city in central Minnesota, and helped win a hockey championship enjoying for the U.S. Air Drive Academy. Upon commencement in 2007, he grew to become a procurement officer and reached the rank of captain. “Principally, I purchased stuff,” he stated in a podcast look. The work took him to Afghanistan in 2011, the place he secured upgrades to prisons within the metropolis of Kandahar that, based on a quotation for his protection meritorious service medal, prevented a “Taliban jailbreak.”
In a LinkedIn publish, Reese wrote that he got here down with post-traumatic stress dysfunction in Afghanistan following many sleepless nights marked by the booms of oblique rocket fireplace. The extreme psychological and bodily ache, he says, led to alcohol and drug abuse, a playing dependancy, then divorce. “I used to be shattered and damaged,” he says on his web site. “I used to be unwilling to be uncomfortably weak, and due to this fact, didn’t search the correct assist. However throughout this similar season, God put it on my coronary heart that I used to be created for a better goal: to present fellow veterans hope and assist.”
Reese left energetic responsibility in 2012 and moved to Texas in 2014. He served as a civilian contracting officer primarily based at Randolph Air Drive Base close to San Antonio till 2018.
VA Claims Insider, which he based in 2017, has no bodily headquarters. It’s registered to an Austin P.O. field in a small purchasing heart. Texas provides particular advantages to veteran-run companies, waiving franchise taxes for 5 years, or as much as $1 million. Reese and his spouse, Laurel, personal a riverfront house price $2.2 million with a personal boat dock that’s equally exempt from property taxes, because of a Texas regulation that grants such aid to veterans, like Reese, who’re rated as 100% disabled.
In a webinar, Reese defined that his incapacity advantages had given him new “life-style choices,” like a Minnesota lake home and a brand new Ford truck. “I need this for you,” he stated. “I need you to get the tax-free compensation.”
As his consumer listing grew, Reese boosted internet marketing and employed coaches, a lot of them disabled veterans he’d helped. He received reward from Texas information anchors and influencers like Marcus Luttrell, a retired Navy SEAL who wrote a bestseller, “Lone Survivor,” a couple of lethal conflict with Taliban fighters. He additionally began an internet site referred to as Army Incapacity Made Straightforward, which costs $19.95 a month for video tutorials and different data.
4 former staff of VA Claims Insider, who insisted on anonymity as a result of they feared being sued, stated that as the corporate’s reputation spiked, teaching high quality degraded. Some coaches had been saddled with as much as 1,000 purchasers at a time. (Accredited claims brokers typically have someplace between 100 and 250 purchasers at a time.) “We might hardly sustain,” stated one former coach. “We weren’t offering a lot service to our purchasers,” one other admitted. “I questioned how we might justify these excessive costs.” Different former staff stated unqualified coaches had been introduced on. “They had been bringing in anyone they might rent, instructing them actual fast and on the fly, then sending them out to the wolves,” one stated.
Unaccredited corporations proliferated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered VFW and Legion posts across the nation and exploded following the passage of the PACT Act. Sullivan, the veterans’ advocate who served within the Gulf Conflict, compiled an inventory of what he referred to as six of the worst unaccredited “declare sharks.” It included VA Claims Insider in addition to one other enterprise, Telemedica, which was fashioned by Reese’s spouse, Laurel.
Via Telemedica, her firm connects veterans with scientific professionals who present medical evaluations that may assist strengthen a veteran’s incapacity declare. Earlier than Telemedica was based in 2020, Reese was overseeing contractual relationships with scientific suppliers wherein his firm retained $120 out of each $395 analysis payment, plus a $100 “one-time examination/information assessment payment.”
VA Claims Insider and Telemedica, which share an tackle on enterprise paperwork, are deeply intertwined, based on a dozen former staff. They stated VA Claims Insider staff have carried out work for Telemedica and claimed coaches had been directed to push purchasers to undertake evaluations from the corporate. “I wouldn’t at all times advocate one,” recalled one former coach. “They acquired upset about that.”
In a criticism to the lawyer normal, Jordan, the veteran from Wylie, stated he was pushed into spending practically $400 on a Telemedica analysis wherein he was recognized with PTSD in simply quarter-hour. Jordan claimed that his analysis was “not accepted” by the federal government.
In one other criticism to the lawyer normal’s workplace, Warner, the veteran from Tomball, stated the VA deemed his analysis from Telemedica “ineffective.”
In a 3rd criticism, Florida resident Amy Anderson instructed the lawyer normal’s workplace that her associate undertook an analysis that was a “detriment to his claims resulting from what number of fraudulent claims are submitted by this ‘medical group.’”
The 2020 danger evaluation warned about VA Claims Insider’s involvement in medical evaluations, noting that “any time a consulting service advertises referrals to medical professionals, the federal government will take discover” however stated the corporate “possesses legitimate arguments to deal with any kickback investigation which will happen.”
Eller stated VA Claims Insider “doesn’t stress any veteran consumer or coach to make the most of companies via Telemedica, LLC. Interval.” He claimed the 2 corporations had been completely separate and stated anti-kickback statute doesn’t apply to Telemedica, as “neither VA Claims Insider nor Brian Reese has ever acquired a penny for making referrals to Telemedica.”
When a VA Claims Insider consumer threatened in 2018 to go to the Texas lawyer normal with considerations, Reese contacted the lawyer normal’s workplace for steerage, based on information obtained via a public information request.
Texas’ shopper safety legal guidelines are thought of to be among the many weakest within the nation, largely as a result of solely the state’s lawyer normal can search damages for misleading practices. In different states, shoppers can themselves search authorized redress for doubtful enterprise practices.
The lawyer normal’s workplace has been below pressure. In Could, the Texas Home impeached Lawyer Common Ken Paxton on costs that embrace bribery, abuse of workplace, dereliction of responsibility and obstruction of justice. He has been suspended with out pay and awaits trial by the Texas Senate.
After consulting Paxton’s workplace, Reese posted a video on Fb wherein he stated that a number of “haters” had posted “pretend critiques” and different “misinformation” about his firm. Reese asserted that he had spoken with attorneys within the lawyer normal’s workplace to “make it possible for every part we’re doing is above board.”
It wasn’t solely prospects who sounded alarms. In accordance with arbitration paperwork, Reese fired a contractor who he feared was going to cooperate with a possible investigation and due to this fact posed a “safety danger.” Eller dismissed the declare as that of a “disgruntled former contractor.”
Reese has additionally encountered rising authorities scrutiny. In response, VA Claims Insider has paid $280,000 to Ogilvy Authorities Relations for lobbying on “points associated to veterans’ advantages, together with legislative proposals.”
They could have discovered an ally in U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who launched a invoice in 2021 that would supply a three-year pilot contract to an unnamed firm that gives consulting companies “to evaluate and advise claimants primarily based upon a assessment of every claimant’s particular circumstances” — an outline that matches VA Claims Insider.
Cruz’s employees didn’t clarify why the invoice was launched. Eller stated that Reese had met with Cruz staffers, however solely to debate new incapacity protection secured via the PACT Act.
On the listening to in April 2022, U.S. Rep. Jake Ellzey, a Waxahachie Republican and a Navy veteran, and different lawmakers invited main for-profit claims corporations, together with VA Claims Insider, to reply questions on their enterprise practices. Reese didn’t present up as a result of he was in a foreign country on trip.
In his testimony, Ryan M. Gallucci, an Iraq veteran who on the time oversaw 1,900 accredited claims representatives on the Veterans of Overseas Wars, stated leaders of the unaccredited teams in attendance “ought to be met on the door by Capitol police, not supplied a seat on the similar desk as hardworking VA accredited advocates who’re held to skilled and moral requirements designed to guard veterans.”
Ellzey, a former Texas Veterans Fee official, and different Home members have launched the Governing Unaccredited Representatives Defrauding (GUARD) VA Advantages Act, laws that might reinstate federal penalties for nonaccredited actors.
“I don’t assume anyone ought to make any cash off of a veteran and the incapacity that they obtain,” Ellzey says.