GI Bill and VA Woes… it’s a long one.
Recently news stories about the lack of Post 9-11 GI Bill payments have started cropping up… the New York Times, CNN, Army Times… even IAVA has made a formal statement regarding the issue. But what is really going on here? Why is there a hold up? What caused it? When will there be a resolution? How can we prevent this from continuing to happen?
In my research and through talking to contacts in higher education it became quite clear that this whole situation is complicated and the implications are far reaching… for veterans, the VA and the thousands of higher education institutions taking on these GI Bill funded students. The crux of the issue is this: With hundreds of thousands of veterans having chosen to go back to school via funding from the VA and the Post 9-11 GI Bill, the VA still conducts much of its business manually… with paper checks being cut, few (if any) electronic programs to process paperwork and on top of all this, they are understaffed and underfunded. So it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a backlog of payments & applications was never far away. In fact, one could argue that it was practically imminent.
However, before you get up in arms shouting about how the VA is dropping the ball… it should be noted that the VA did see the potential for this backlog (as early as fall 2008) and hired 750 new claims processors and, most importantly, asked to outource the creation of an electronic program that could handle the influx of GI Bill related paperwork to another company. This company was to be tasked to create, for the VA and specifically the Post 9-11 GI Bill, a program that would create an entirely electronic system to evaluate, process, calculate payouts (a very complicated process involving geography, economy, time in service, and specific institutions) and approve claims for these potential new students. This program would have been ready by the summer of this year. (It should also be noted that the payouts for benefits is doubly complicated as tution funds are paid directly to each individual university/college and the cost of living/book funds are paid directly to the veteran.)
This is where things get sticky. When the veteran’s community (specifically the American Legion) found out about the outsourcing they began vehement opposition to anyone other than the VA creating the program. According to the American Legion’s Commander David Rehbein “We, too, want our veterans’ applications to be processed as quickly as possible and communications to be efficient and timely in their delivery. We have no quarrel with the idea, but we believe strongly that VA currently possesses the talents, skills, expertise and resources to implement such modernization. VA was created to fulfill obligations like this, not to hire someone else to do it.”
The result of the opposition? The VA backed out of the contract and went back to manually processing of applications and checks with their grossly undermanned (and underfunded) staff. So, today we have not only a backlog of applications, but more importantly we have a backlog of payouts to veteran students who are already enrolled in school. The VA is currently in the process of creating their own electronic system but the earliest roll-out date is slated for late 2010. A full year from now. Until then, we are stuck with the system as it stands.
What is happening in the mean time? Universities are not getting the tuition payments for their veteran students. The veterans, who have already had their applications to the program accepted, aren’t getting payments for cost of living and books (to date, according to IAVA, less than 11% have received payments). The higher ed institutions are having to create loopholes to keep these students enrolled, but if payments do not come in time, the students are in danger of being dropped. The veterans are having to go into personal debt (credit cards, loans) to cover their own bills, ones that are supposed to be paid by the GI Bill. Sadly, landlords and creditors do not care that the VA is backlogged, they want their money and they want it now. And our veterans are stuck in the middle.
So what do we do? Where do we go from here? The American Legion’s stance is that the VA should hire veterans (obviously this would help alleviate the 11% veteran unemployment rate) to fill in their staffing needs and help create the new program. Rehbein said, “The VA… employees have intimate knowledge of veterans’ often unique needs and how best to serve them. If outsiders were to build a system of automation, they would have to know just where a computer should stop in the process and where a human should intervene. … We believe that VA’s own information technology team is extremely capable and perfectly equipped to develop, launch and administer all the provisions of the new GI Bill. If help is needed, a great opportunity is present to hire young veterans with IT abilities to help VA develop this automated process internally.” While this is not a bad idea, and in fact, would serve to resolve two issues with one fell swoop (unemployment and understaffing) it seems to be somewhat short-sighted. The process is already massively backlogged, some reports are estimating that it could be upwards of 6 months until some veterans begin receiving payments, and the hiring (assuming there are funds for additional new hires) and training process alone for these IT trained veterans alone would take months, further delaying the creation of the automated system. Moreover, the VA is still responsible for the processing of all veterans claims, not just those relating to the GI Bill, so it hardly seems feasible to reallocate current VA staff and funding to this project when other non-GI Bill claims are also running at a backlog.
Clearly there is no one answer to this situation. For all their issues, it would seem that the VA is not entirely at fault. But, quite frankly, fault doesn’t matter when veterans are having to bear the burden of beurocratic hiccups. The VA is currently working on a program to expedite the processing of applications, checks and claims. However, what happens in the meantime? What are the American Legion and other veteran’s organizations doing to help solve the problem that they, rightfully or wrongly, helped create? What happens to the veterans stuck in the middle when the rent is due and there is no money? What happens when their tuition bills aren’t paid and their universities are forced to drop them from enrollment? And how do we prevent this nightmarish situation from turning off an entire generation of veterans (and higher education institutions) to the VA?
The good news is that the outlook isn’t ALL doom & gloom. While most of the payments to both universities and veterans aren’t coming right this minute, many higher education institutions recognize that the issue isn’t with the individual students. (And to be fair, some have received all of their payments for their students, this is highly variable among universities.) Some universities have created special status for veteran students who haven’t gotten their tuitions paid yet so that they will not be penalized within the institution, like being dropped from classes or losing admission status, for late payments. Many are also offering veterans loans at 0% interest to cover some of their costs without launching them into credit card debt. Even better, in July FAFSA changed how they treat veteran’s financial aid applications. In the past, any aid given to a veteran (be it state or federal, and recently all non-tuition benefits of the GI Bill) was counted as extra assets in their application. These benefits will no longer be included in applications and should result in much, much better financial aid packages for veterans across the board.
The take home message is this: all veterans using the Post 9-11 GI Bill must be proactive about their own situation while the VA works to rectify the backlog. With the arrival of this new GI Bill, little was done in the way of creating transparency or a chain of communication within the individual universities for the veteran students in the program. No one person or group at any given university knows everything about a veteran’s status… the registrar handles classes, the bursar handles tuition, the financial aid office handles loans and scholarships, the student vet officer (if the school has one) handles some out-of-the-classroom issues. With no single person within the institutions fully aware of the specifics of each case, the veteran has to be his or her own advocate until change is made. So, while the VA works to fix this issue in house, just as the American Legion wanted, the only resolution is for veterans to be proactive and utilize the resources available to them through their university of choice. And start working to change the support structure and institutional transparency for veteran students utilizing the new GI Bill.