Recently separated veterans may be getting inaccurate information about education benefits in the mail, potentially causing “mass confusion” among veterans about their eligibility, Veterans Affairs officials admitted to lawmakers on Tuesday.
That’s because the VA is still in the process of updating its information technology systems with major reforms to the GI Bill signed into law by President Trump in August. Some recipients of the benefit who qualify for the changes have received letters from the department with old information.
The new legislation — dubbed the “Forever GI Bill” — includes language that eliminates the 15-year time limit on using the Post-9/11 GI Bill for veterans who separated from the military after January 1, 2013.
Changes to VA’s automated system that generates certificates of eligibility won’t be updated until the spring, officials said, meaning veterans eligible for the change are still seeing an expiration date in their records.
Lawmakers called that mix-up upsetting.
“This is why people have no faith in government,” Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., said during the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday. “You pass a historic piece of legislation, and the agency responsible for implementing it doesn’t have the tools to implement it. It’s just insane.”
So far, the solution has been to send veterans follow-up letters to correct the record, said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Worley, director of education service at VA. The department has also updated its website and social media channels to reflect the current information, and has taken other steps to get the word out.
But sending a letter to correct a previous letter “will certainly cause mass confusion for all program participants,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla. “I can’t believe this is happening. Our veterans, our soldiers, deserve better. They deserve certainty.”
It’s unclear how many veterans have been receiving conflicting information in the mail. Officials from Student Veterans of America said nearly one million veterans are eligible for the benefits without a delimiting date. This provision also applies to spouses of service members killed in the line of duty since 9/11 who are using the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship to pay for college.
“While VA has rightly prioritized educating the public via electronic channels (i.e. social media) about the Forever GI Bill and removing the delimiting date, affecting notices by snail mail letters continues to be stuck in the morass of bureaucracy that VA is popularly known for producing,” SVA spokesman Barrett Bogue said in an email. “It played right into the negative stereotypes student veterans have about VA.”
Kathleen Moakler, policy director at Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, testified the discrepancy may make some beneficiaries reluctant to use their benefits until the information is corrected on their certificate of eligibility.
Subcommittee members urged Worley and his team to consider other workarounds — even manually crossing out expiration dates on certificates of eligibility with a Sharpie — in lieu of an automated fix that a representative from VA’s IT office said could take until March.
Worley said he understood the frustration over the conflicting messages, but said solutions to the problem won’t be quick.
“It’s not just going into a Word document and changing a few lines,” he said. “It’s much more complicated than that.”
Worley stressed that the majority of the Forever GI Bill’s provisions — many of which go into effect in August 2018 — require significant changes on the back end, and the VA has been making progress in the four months since it became law.
So far, the VA has notified nearly 8,000 veterans affected by school closures who may be eligible to have their benefits restored, and successfully restored entitlement to more than 200, Worley said. The department has also been working to notify thousands of reservists about changes to their benefits under the new law.
The department has begun hiring around 200 temporary employees, assembling specialized teams of experienced claims processors, and reallocating senior staff to boost manpower.
But certain aspects of the Forever GI Bill simply “cannot be processed in the current automation without huge, huge changes,” he said, putting their approximate cost at $70 million.
In total, the Forever GI Bill included 34 provisions that brought about a significant expansion of benefits for many veterans, reservists, Purple Heart recipients, and surviving dependents. VA officials said the department will be better positioned to report on particular IT updates in the spring and will continue to provide lawmakers with updates about the GI Bill’s implementation.