Editor’s note: The following commentary was contributed by VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence. The content may be edited for clarity, style and length.
Over the past few weeks, the VFW has heard directly from too many veterans who have yet to receive their tuition and housing payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs for this fall semester, which student veterans rely on to pay rent and other living costs. Unfortunately, VA was not straightforward with student veterans affected by these financial hardships until the VFW called attention to it earlier this month.
VA has been giving mixed messages regarding the solution to the problem, and student veterans are rightfully wondering when they will get paid. Some veterans have asked the VFW for help through our Unmet Needs emergency grant program, but there’s a more practical solution: Call the VA’s GI Bill Helpline.
Veterans who are experiencing delayed payments need to call 1-888-GIBILL-1 (888-442-4551) and ask VA to process their education benefit claim immediately due to a financial hardship.
VA has assured us that these claims will be processed within the next business day and that student veterans can expect prompt payments of their benefits within five business days. If VA does not resolve this issue quickly, then I encourage veterans to then contact the VFW at firstname.lastname@example.org, at which point the VFW’s casework team has the authority to intervene on their behalf with VA Education Service.
Since VA instituted the process for claiming financial hardships, the VFW has seen expedited processing for the veterans who initially contacted us. As veterans’ advocates, we highly encourage veterans and beneficiaries to stay on the line and tell VA they are experiencing a financial hardship. When faced with mounting bills, rent or mortgage payments, or childcare disenrollments, this process is well worth the effort.
How did we get here and what are we doing to prevent it from happening again? Last summer, Congress passed the Forever GI Bill with the goal of significantly improving veterans’ education benefits. These changes required VA to make swift changes to its education benefit processing systems. Unfortunately, in late July, VA’s new processing systems were not working properly. This prompted schools to hold onto GI Bill certifications longer than usual. Finally, VA encouraged schools to submit their certifications, opening the floodgates.
VA is now working nights and weekends to process these benefits payments as quickly as possible — and they are yielding results. Since Oct. 1, the backlog of claims has been reduced from more than 200,000 to just over 120,000 – and this includes new claims that come in every day. That being said, this still means thousands of veterans are still waiting for their much-needed living stipend payments – some more than 60 days.
These delays have happened before when VA implemented major upgrades to education benefits. VA must learn from its previous mistakes and cannot afford a repeat debacle in the spring semester. That’s why the VFW recently called on Congress to hold a hearing on the GI Bill delays and urged the Senate to swiftly pass the SIT-REP Act of 2018 to ensure schools cannot drop veterans from their rolls because of VA processing delays or errors.
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has heeded our call for a hearing, currently scheduled on Nov. 14, at which time VA must be accountable for fixing this problem forever.
B.J. Lawrence, of Alamogordo, N.M., is the national commander of the 1.6 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and its Auxiliary.