VA: No fix in sight for GI Bill disaster

Matt Saintsing
November 15, 2018 - 7:48 pm

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Lawmakers wanted to know when the Department of Veterans Affairs would finally fix an ongoing GI Bill debacle that’s left thousands of student veterans in a financial lurch. 

But VA officials left them empty-handed, unable or unwilling to provide a timeline for when student veterans would be made whole. 

“We are not giving you a date,” VA Undersecretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence told the House Veterans Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. “You will not leave this hearing with a date.” 

But that answer didn’t satisfy the subcommittee’s members, including its ranking member Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas), who asked for a “crystal clear understanding” of when and how the IT issues will be fixed.

Not offering a timeline for when the technology failures would be fixed “is a recipe for disaster if I ever heard one,” said O’Rourke. 

The VA says the ongoing technological failures are due to an antiquated IT system and “complex” changes in how VA calculates housing payments for GI Bill recipients. The Forever GI Bill, signed into law last year, greatly expanded benefits for a new generation of veterans eager to cash in on educational benefits they've earned. One of the newer provisions changed how the VA calculates housing stipends, which student veterans use to live on when going to school. 

Under the new provision, payments have to match up where the student physically attends class. They previously were calculated based on the zip code of the students' home address. 

VA had a year to prepare for the change ahead of a July 16, 2018 deadline that was eventually pushed to Aug. 1. VA is now saying they weren't prepared for those changes. 

But critics on the subcommittee say the VA failed to fully understand the difference in regulations and dragged their feet when responding to what has become a financial nightmare for student veterans nationwide. 

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“Congress consistently has provided the VA with record budgets,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas). 

“We’ve sent a lot of letters, we’ve had inquiries, we’ve had personal meetings—I think that the answers we’re getting, and the delays and the promises that we’ll have it fixed that end up not happening, are unacceptable.”  

According to VA, more than 10,000 pending education claims are between 30 to 60 days old, 1,000 are over 60 days, and 92 are more than 90 days old. VA says they are working around the clock to reduce the massive backlog. 

Robert Worley, executive director of VA’s Education Service within the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA), told lawmakers his department had a budget of $6 million set aside for overtime costs to address the issue, and that he needed an additional $2 million over the past few months.

Worley, a retired Air Force General was abruptly reassigned shortly after the hearing. He will become the executive director of the Houston VA Regional Office in January. The reason for his reassignment wasn't immediately clear. 

Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) offered a personal moment when he used the GI Bill decades ago without any problems, but also without the technology and millions of dollars spent.  

“I got the money on time, without all the computers, all the nonsense, I got a check every month from the VA—not a single hiccup,” he said. “And that is a frustration I have, that we’ve spent all of this money and time and we can’t get a paycheck out to somebody.”  

One of his Republican colleagues offered a more blunt assessment of the inner workings of the beleaguered department. 

“This administration promised to clean up the culture of bureaucratic incompetence inside the VA,” said Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman. “Based on this testimony today, I don’t think they’ve made a lick of difference.” 

Veterans experiencing financial hardship can call VA’s customer service line at 888-442-4551.

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