AUGUSTA — Veterans advocates accused the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services on Wednesday of refusing to help vets who have complicated disability claims and “cherry-picking” those with better odds of success.

They said the practice disenfranchises individuals struggling to navigate the federal bureaucracy.

The bureau’s director, however, responded that employees work diligently to assist veterans with complicated cases but must also follow federal guidelines to avoid filing potentially frivolous or fraudulent claims.

The issue emerged Wednesday during a hearing on a bill by Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, that would require the Bureau of Veterans’ Services to assist all veterans with filing claims for service-related benefits with the VA, regardless of the nature of the claim. Libby introduced the bill after hearing from a former bureau employee, Matthew Haley, who said the state agency occasionally refused to represent veterans on more complicated cases where winning the claim is far from guaranteed.

“If the bureau is a public entity codified in statute to provide services – like assistance with disability claims before the VA – then why can this public entity … not be required to serve all comers and, instead, be allowed to cherry-pick the simplest cases?” Libby, the assistant Senate minority leader, told the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee.

Adria Horn, director of the Bureau of Veterans’ Services, was attending a national conference for state directors of VA programs and was not able to testify. But in a telephone interview, Horn rebuffed suggestions that her state agency tries to select “slam dunk” cases.

“We don’t do that and it’s a really unfortunate mischaracterization of the work that we do to represent veterans,” Horn said. “Every claim – every single one – is different with its own nuances.”


The Bureau of Veterans’ Services is an agency within the state Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management and is one of six accredited veterans services organizations in Maine that help individuals file claims for disability benefits for a service-related injury and other VA requests. There are 127,234 veterans in Maine, and 25,740 Maine vets were receiving disability compensation in 2014, according to the most recent federal data posted online by the Bureau of Veterans’ Services.

While some disability claims are relatively easy to process – such as a limb lost while serving in a combat zone – others are more time-consuming as veterans attempt to prove their injury or condition is linked to their military service. That process is made more difficult by poor military record-keeping, missing documentation or the challenge of pinpointing, say, cancer to a specific cause.

The VA has strict standards that applicants must meet to qualify for certain disability benefits. But Wednesday’s hearing highlighted a debate about how far veterans services organizations, or VSOs, should go when pursuing claims.

Haley, who worked at the bureau for two years, was not able to attend Wednesday’s public hearing on Libby’s bill because of a recent death in his family, Libby said. But in written testimony, Haley argued that every veteran “has the right to fair and equal representation” in cases pending with the VA, a federal agency plagued with a backlog of claims requests.

“During my time as an employee of the bureau, it was regularly enforced that we, the bureau, do not take representation of claims that do not have a high probability of success,” Libby said. “I had always found this unsettling, however, it was explained that this is how the bureau eliminates frivolous claims. However, my experience was quite different.”


Haley said he was forced to turn away veterans who did not have “perfect” claims or who wanted to appeal a VA denial.

Horn, the bureau director, acknowledged that “we try not to take” claims that have no chance of acceptance – based on the VA criteria – because employees can lose VA accreditation for knowingly submitting fraudulent or frivolous claims. She said Libby’s bill could require the bureau to submit fraudulent or frivolous claims, thereby putting the bureau or employees’ accreditation at risk.

Horn said filing a frivolous claim also could cause a veteran to lose benefits by triggering a re-evaluation by the VA.

“Any time you trigger a re-evaluation of someone … we run the risk of the VA reversing or lowering the (compensation) percentage,” she said.

Haley, however, isn’t the only person raising concerns about the bureau process.

Pamela Trinward, a field representative who works on veterans issues for Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st Congressional District, has been steering veterans away from the bureau because of her concerns. A former state lawmaker, Trinward now directs individuals toward other veterans services organizations, such as the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars or Disabled American Veterans.

“Maine Veterans Services should be required to help all Maine veterans,” Trinward wrote, referring to the bureau. “They should advocate indiscriminately for all Maine veterans. They should not decide whether their case has merit.”


Albert Sionni, a 10-year veteran of the Marine Corps who twice deployed to Iraq, told committee members that bureau staff helped him with a complicated claim after he left the service in 2008. But Sionni, who lives in Woolwich, said he knows other veterans who struggled with the lengthy process and have been turned away. While he applauded the “great people” employed in the bureau, he said veterans need confidence that claims will be given thorough treatment.

“The challenges of navigating the VA bureaucracy is something a veteran should never have to face alone. It is stressful enough when the process runs smoothly,” Sionni said. “The needs of each veteran are different. If you choose to only provide service to the veterans whose claims are easy you are telling a veteran in need that they aren’t worth the time needed to process their claim.”

Steven SanPedro, state commander for the Maine-VFW, said the bureau “does a great job” and that employees do their best for veterans. But SanPedro said veterans services organizations need to be “acting 110 percent in (veterans’) best interest, not swayed by performance metrics or systemic influences.”

“In our view, this bill allows the agency to better serve the veterans by placing the focus on quality outcomes versus simply evaluating the performance metrics of numbers of veterans served or total of dollars awarded,” SanPedro wrote.

Horn bristled at the suggestion that the bureau considers “performance metrics” when working with veterans, noting that she directs employees to devote as much time as necessary to claims. Horn added that she maintains an open-door policy for veterans or veterans services organizations with concerns, and she expressed disappointment that – given the cooperation among organizations statewide – “this remains an issue that people felt they needed to legislate.”

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: KevinMillerPPH