VA fix to ongoing GI Bill fiasco: Hurry up and wait

Matt Saintsing
November 28, 2018 - 11:55 am

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With chaos and confusion surrounding the delays of GI Bill payments to student veterans, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Wednesday, the problem will be fixed by December 2019. 

The ongoing and frustrating episode of “hurry up and wait” stems from a series of technological setbacks that caused the Department to bust through several deadlines dating back to this summer. The IT issues have sparked a backlog of claims into the tens of thousands for veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill this fall semester. 

“Redesigning the way VBA calculates Post 9/11 GI Bill housing rates during a busy academic season was like flying a plane while building it, and that was unfair and frustrating to Veterans and taxpayers," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. 

READ MORE: Lawmaker on GI Bill delays: ‘A lot of people are out there struggling right now’

“That’s why we are resetting our implementation of the law for the next year to ensure we get the technology and formula right to put Veterans first.” 

While the final fix is more than a year away, Wilkie said anyone currently using the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits “will be paid at the DoD (basic housing allowance) rate, which in many cases will be equal to or higher than their current payment.” 

Known as the “Forever” GI Bill, the new expansion of educational benefits made changed into how the VA pays student veterans their monthly housing allowance, which the vast majority of beneficiaries use as a way of making a living. The housing payment is used for everything from paying rent, to groceries, and even gas to get to class. 

The VA will "reset its implementation efforts" for two sections of the Forever GI Bill "to give the department the time, contracting support and resources necessary to develop the capability to process Spring 2020 enrollments." The retune will include finding a new contractor; Booz Allen Hamilton has been the leading firm for VA's IT systems and software development. 

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Some vets using their GI Bill benefits who are experiencing ongoing delays have resorted to taking out emergency loans, while a select few have opted to leave school entirely. 

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, following VA’s announcement called for the beleaguered department’s feet to be held to the fire. 

“Congress provides more than $4 billion a year for the VA’s information technology organization, and the department must be held accountable to produce smart IT solutions that work for veterans and the VA workforce,” Isakson said. 

But he stopped short of blaming Wilkie directly. 

“While I am disappointed that the VA does not yet have an effective IT system in place, I understand Secretary Wilkie’s decision to reset implementation of certain sections of the ‘Forever’ G.I.” 

“For the past 11 months, VA has continually failed to deliver a functioning IT system that can process housing payments as dictated by the law,” added Rep Tim Walz (D-Minn.), ranking member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. 

“The changes VA announced today, however, raise more concerns than confidence that student veterans will be taken care of anytime soon.”

But other stakeholders say the VA's fix is welcome, even if some details still need to be ironed out.  

"Overall, this is great news," Michelle Reitze, assistant vice president for veterans at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) told Connecting Vets.

In a memo sent to school certifying officials, the Veterans Benefits Administration said there would be no requirement to go back and correct past enrollments before the Spring 2020 term. In other words, the massive backlog of work VA would have passed on to colleges will cease. 

"This is not a good situation and is certainly not good for veterans who are affected, however, with the resetting we have an opportunity to really improve other things," added Reitze. "The VA says they had an antiquated system and it needed an overhaul and this is a really good opportunity to do that.” 

"I am encouraged by the steps Under Secretary Lawrence, and his staff are taking, but expect VA to correct student's monthly housing allowance from fall 2018 well before spring 2020, said Tanya Ang, director of policy and outreach at Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit that advocates for veterans and service members using educational benefits. 

“Furthermore, the systemic issues with VA's antiquated IT system must be addressed by VA leadership and Congress so that delays like this never happen again."

     If you're still experiencing GI Bill delays, I'd like to hear from you. Drop me a line at [email protected]

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