The VA has acknowledged delays in sending veterans their checks for education under the new GI Bill, and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee wanted to know what steps it was taking to correct the situation and hear from veterans how well the program is working.
Marco Reininger, the vice president of Columbia University’s military veterans group and a member of the Iraq Afghanistan Veterans of America, said, "The most common complaint I hear from fellow student veterans is that they didn’t know when their GI Bill checks would arrive.
"Student veterans can scrimp and save in a pinch, photocopying assigned readings instead of buying the textbooks or being content to eat Ramen noodles for another week instead of going out to dinner with our classmates. We can make due, but only if we know that our GI Bill check is going to arrive on a particular day."
Testifying April 21, he added, "Not knowing when it will arrive and not being able to get an answer from the VA can wreak havoc on your life. You have to plan for the worst. I know some veterans who took some drastic measures. A fellow veteran ate canned beans and sardines three meals a day for an entire semester, trying to scrape up gas money for his wife and children back home."
Complicating matters for veterans is the lack of understanding how the process is supposed to work from the college and university’s end.
Reininger said, "Probably one of the biggest surprises, throughout the whole process of using my GI Bill benefits, was how confused some school financial aid officials were. I expected the VA to have formally trained these School Certifying Officials. I assumed that the school officials would have answers, but they were frantically trying to figure out how the new GI Bill worked, just as we were."
Faith DesLauriers, legislative director of the National Association of Veterans Program Administrators, agreed with Reininger on the hurdles in processing a veteran’s certification to the VA.
Because of the backlogs and delays, VA has been sending lump sum checks to cover veterans from Aug. 1 to now, she said. "Tuition and fee payments for multiple enrollment periods are lumped into a single payment, with no clarifying information attached.
"Schools must calculate the expected award, often based on estimates because we are not privileged to the eligibility tier on which the payment is based, and the student is otherwise eligible. It is very difficult for schools to reconcile lump sum payments and accurately post the funds to the appropriate enrollment periods."
DesLauriers said a number of schools are delaying action on back tuition and fees because they believe "a promise" was made to the veterans that these expenses would be covered in a timely manner – about 30 days.
At the same time, there are veterans attending colleges and universities who are not covered by the new GI Bill, she added. "Schools have created new policies to ensure students are not negatively impacted by any delays in receipt of tuition and fee payments by VA– not as great an issue now as this was in fall 2009, but still in effect.
"As the only face-to-face contact point in the process, schools have devoted a great deal of time and energy to working directly with students who are trying to evaluate their options when eligible for multiple GI Bill programs."
"In spite of this move by the schools [to delay sending certification of eligibility to the VA until the drop/add period at the school is over], the veteran is still being overpaid; consequently, the schools send back the money, but it is not being reported back to the VA in a timely manner.
"Ultimately, the veteran is then denied their housing allowance and books stipend, until their payment is recouped by VA. This causes an undue burden for the veteran and his/her family and causes, again, another financial hardship. Every time a mistake happens, it does not affect VA, but does manage to cause problems for the veteran," Robert Madden of the American Legion said.
Keith Wilson, director of Education Services in the VA’s Veterans Benefits Administration, said that the early problems were caused by antiquated information technology systems. "Post-9/11 GI Bill claims currently require manual processing using four separate IT systems that do not interface with each other."
As DesLauiers said, the VA also had to determine under what GI Bill law was a veteran to receive re-imbursement, he added. This also contributed to the backlog of claims.
"The new benefit program requires VA to determine maximum tuition and fee rates for each state before the beginning of each academic year. Schools do not typically set their tuition and fee rates until state support is determined for the academic year.
"Many states did not pass their operating budgets until late July/early August. Correspondingly, institutions could not set tuition and fee rates until late August. Delays in determining the 2009-2010 maximum tuition and fee rates resulted in delayed processing of payments for students attending school in those states."
Wilson said that as the date to launch the new GI Bill approached, VA was also hiring new workers and training them in how to process claims under the program, adding to the backlog.
He said current claims are taking 53 days to process and supplemental claims are taking 21 days.
As it began implementing the bill last fall, the VA provided $355.5 million in advance payments to veterans who hadn’t yet received their education funds, Wilson said.
Additionally, officials estimated 6,000 veterans had too much money withdrawn from their accounts to repay these advances starting April 1.
The payments have put many veterans in overpayment status, a practice that’s unacceptable, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
"We do not want to continue advance payments," Wilson said.
Through new automation technology, mandatory overtime in processing center and better coordination with the Department of Defense, Wilson said for the spring semester, "VA was able to increase its daily completions of Post-9/11 GI Bill enrollment certifications from an average of 1,800 per day during October to nearly 7,000 per day."