After Forever GI Bill failures last year led some veterans to be evicted, VA says it's ready to re-launch

Abbie Bennett
November 19, 2019 - 10:43 am
GIBill

Photo by Master Sgt. William Wiseman/185th Air Refueling Wing, Iowa Air National Guard

After catastrophic technology failings led to missed or lower GI Bill payments last year left some student veterans evicted or struggling, Department of Veterans Affairs leaders assured Congress Tuesday that it is prepared to try again. 

But it doesn't plan to begin repaying those students until next summer at the earliest.

In 2018, VA spent months telling Congress it was ready to launch Forever GI Bill updates that included changes to the amount of money student veterans or family members using GI Bill benefits would receive as a housing allowance. 

VA floundered in making those changes, though, in part because of "ancient" information technology systems, Congress members said. Some students went without payments, others saw mistakenly low payments or were overpaid and now will have their amounts adjusted. 

Some of those students are still waiting to be paid, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said Tuesday. VA leaders did not answer questions about how many students were underpaid, or how much they are owed. 

While VA leaders told Congress it planned to make those veterans whole and ensure they're paid what they're owed, leaders said that may not happen until this time next year. Some students could be repaid as soon as next summer, leaders said. 

VA leaders also said students who previously received overpayments will have their debt waived.

The changes set for re-launch on Dec. 1, 2019, include changing how monthly housing allowances are calculated based on the campus where the student physically attends class. Some students attend class at satellite or "extension" campuses, and many of them will receive smaller stipends. 

Of the about 500,000 student veterans and family members who receive GI Bill housing allowances, about 22,000 of those could see lower payments and 19,000 students could see higher payments, VA leaders told Congress, adding they wanted to be sure students understand the lower payments are part of changes to the law, "not a VA failure." 

Members of Congress urged VA to let veterans know those changes are coming now. 

"Bad news doesn't get better with time," Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., said. "The sooner our student veterans have an indication there's going to be a change for the lesser, the sooner they can plan. Don't wait ... get word the word out that there are going to be some changes." 

"These changes have the potential to impact thousands. I'm concerned that, despite VA's best efforts, some students will be surprised when they see an unexpected decrease in payment," said Ranking Member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. "There will be some (students) caught off guard no matter how much you prepare."

Members wanted assurance that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated. 

"No plan survives first contact," Bergman said. "Things are going to happen and there are going to be mistakes that are made. Please let them be new mistakes." 

VA leaders said they did not want to see veterans waiting on checks again and were planning to work mandatory overtime to make sure the changes are implemented smoothly. 

"We are ready," said Paul Lawrence, VA undersecretary for benefits. "We're working on Thanksgiving. We know what's at stake. We're really well prepared at this point with good systems in place." 

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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