Nearly four months after the Veterans Affairs Department was supposed to have changed the way it calculates Post-9/11 GI Bill housing stipends, students are still getting the wrong amount each month ― and there’s still no end in sight.
At a tense hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, in which members of Congress described the situation as “unacceptable,” a “massive failure” and “debacle,” VA officials were unable to tell lawmakers when they believe the necessary software updates will be complete, though they admitted they’re planning as if they will not be ready in time for the spring semester. These updates were supposed to have launched by Aug. 1 under the new Forever GI Bill law, yet the VA has run into major technical challenges and is still paying student veterans under old rules.
The implementation delays have also contributed to a backlog of pending claims at the VA this semester, and thousands of veterans have had to wait longer than normal for their housing stipends.
As of the hearing, more than 10,000 claims of an overall 73,000 had been pending between 31 and 60 days, said VA Director of Education Service Robert Worley; another 1,000 have already hit the 60-day mark.
“These veterans, as you know, are relying on these payments to pay rent and put food on the table,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee Economic Opportunity. “It is no small thing.”
Worley explained that when VA was initially eyeing a July deadline to have its systems ready by Aug. 1, the department told schools to hold off on certifying students’ enrollment until the new technology was live. Because schools are usually able to do this in advance, and the software ended up not being ready to deploy in time, the VA “got six months of work in about two months,” he said.
Arrington and others were visibly frustrated at the IT issues that seemingly stem from old technology at the department, noting that little has been done to hold anyone accountable for the significant delays. His Democratic counterpart, Ranking Member Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, accused officials of trying to minimize the problem.
Trump-appointee Paul Lawrence, VA under secretary for benefits, said the department has worked with veteran service organizations and members of Congress to help about 1,000 veterans who have contacted the VA in significant financial hardship because of these delays. Lawrence took issue with reports that paint veterans’ financial struggles as a widespread issue and said the VA has heard of no confirmed cases of someone getting evicted from their home as a result of late payments.
“You’re getting the old payment, but you are getting a payment,” Lawrence said of GI Bill students. “You are getting to go to school. Your schools will be paid.”
Students who have received housing stipends this semester — timely or not — are receiving those payments based on the location of their school’s main campus, as was the law before the Forever GI Bill passed last year. Starting in August, however, the VA was to pay students based on the ZIP code of the campus where they take the most classes.
Yet because the VA is still paying under 2017 rules, all students — even those taking all of their courses at the school’s main campus — are receiving inaccurate housing stipends that do not account for about a 1 percent cost-of-living increase. The VA has said it will correct underpayments as soon as possible and will not charge students for any overpayments.
Education staff members have been working overtime to process claims, costing the department more than $4 million so far, according to a committee aide. That’s on top of the $1.2 million the VA has already paid to contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, the company working with the VA’s Office of Information and Technology on this project. The staffer said Congress has allotted $30 million.
“After the hearing, I think it’s important we hear from VA how they are going to make students’ payments whole and how they are going to prevent this from happening in the spring 2019 semester,” Lauren Augustine, vice president of government affairs at the nonprofit Student Veterans of America, said in an email. “From Congress, we hope to hear how they are going to take information from tonight’s hearing on the consistent issues from legacy IT systems and lead modernization efforts for VA education benefits.”
Lawmakers gave VA officials a week to provide more information on a target completion and additional costs.
“It feels like an exercise in futility,” Arrington said. “Just about every program and every good intention of this committee — we’re trying to solve a problem and serve our veterans, and then it’s just more IT rigamarole.”