Beneficiaries claim VA's processing of GI Bill benefits still lackluster

Friday - 2/15/2013, 5:41am EST

The Department of Veterans Affairs says it's made major strides toward implementing an IT system to handle the new, much more complicated version of the G.I. Bill. But members of Congress are hearing that student veterans and the schools they attend still are facing long delays in getting payments.

At issue is the Post-9/11 G.I, bill, a generous educational benefit Congress approved in 2008 for Iraq and Afghanistan-era veterans. Unlike its predecessor, the Montgomery G.I. Bill, which granted essentially the same benefit to every eligible veteran, the 21st century version is vastly more complex: students get direct payments for housing and books, tuition payments go directly to universities, all based on variables such as the student's home state.

VA so far has spent more than $260 million to build an IT system to automate and speed the complicated claims process. But student veteran groups told the House Veterans Affairs Committee Thursday that at least so far, claims are still anything but speedy.

Hayleigh Perez, an Army veteran, said she arrived at graduate school last year but her G.I. Bill funds had not, despite having sent her claim to VA several months earlier.

"After re-submitting the same documentation I'd sent in November of the previous year, I was told to call back a week later. After calling the VA every week for five weeks, I finally got through the never-ending hold times, and I finally got through to a representative," Perez said. "She could see all of the documents I'd submitted both times, and within a few minutes, she was able to issue payment for my book stipend, by housing allowance and my tuition certificate."

Perez, who's now the vice president of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group, said she wound up getting her payment a few days after that final call. But veterans who were less persistent with the department's call center and who've contacted her group had worse outcomes, she said. She said she's seen fellow veterans wait two-to-five months to have their claims processed.

Long weeks, waits for some vets

Michael Dakduk, the executive director of Student Veterans of America, said the wait times among the veterans his group serves are shorter: six-to-eight weeks.

But those are long weeks, he said.

"The problem is we can't see the status of our claims, and our housing allowance comes on the tail end of each month. So you don't know if you're going to have to wait six weeks or eight weeks to pay your bills," he said. "Institutions of higher learning have been pretty understanding about that. But landlords are not as supportive when it comes to paying your rent."

When Congress created the new benefit, it gave VA very little time to figure out how to administer the incoming flood of claims. The department created short term processes to administer the distribution of the new funding while it implemented what's known as the Long Term Solution (LTS), which it's been delivering in increments since then using an agile development methodology in partnership with the Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command.

But student groups and schools say until the automated, rules-based system is processing claims on a timely basis, developers need to add what they see as a critical feature: the ability for both schools and students to track their claims in real-time via a online interface, so at a minimum, beneficiaries know what to expect.

In the absence of that situational awareness, schools say they're willing to cover student veterans' tuition expenses while they wait for the VA payments to arrive.

But Kim Hall, the Vice President of the National Association of Veterans Program Administrators, said that practice might not last forever. Because of the payment delays, some schools might soon ask veterans to pay for tuition up-front while VA claims work their way through the process.

"It's probably where we're going," she said. "But I wouldn't say a majority of our schools are asking for that yet. We're doing our best to float the students until the VA pays."

The problem, Hall said, is that educational institutions are becoming bogged down with Treasury Department offset actions, owing to VA claims that it's overpaid a college or university for a given student's tuition. Those payments, she said, are based on VA calculations that are opaque to the outside world and that schools have no way of tracking in real-time before they arrive, often weeks or months after they're requested.

If the department ultimately determines it's paid a school too much, the institution has to repay the funds. And frequently, schools have found the IRS and VA are trying to simultaneously collect the same alleged debt, Hall said.