Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.
After blowing through the initial deadline to bring its GI Bill housing stipends in line with the Forever GI Bill law, Veterans Affairs Department officials said Wednesday that they will not be able to implement the fix until December 2019.
The big delay comes after months of technology hiccups that have plagued the agency, which failed to meet the original Aug. 1 deadline to put the changes in place. These problems have contributed to a large backlog of claims for veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill to attend school this fall, and the agency has come under fire as thousands of student veterans have had to wait longer than usual for their tuition and housing payments.
VA Sec. Robert Wilkie said in a news release that redesigning the way the Veterans Benefits Administration calculates the housing stipend portion of the GI Bill during a busy academic season “was like flying a plane while building it, and that was unfair and frustrating to veterans and taxpayers. That’s why we are resetting our implementation of the law for the next year to ensure we get the technology and formula right to put veterans first.”
The VA is also looking for a new contractor to take on this task, ending its work with Booz Allen Hamilton for this portion of the Forever GI Bill, VA spokesman Curt Cashour told Military Times.
What students can expect
Students receiving housing stipends this semester are currently getting paid under 2017 rules. Under those rules, students are paid based on the location of their school’s main campus or headquarters — not where they take the most classes, as was supposed to be the case starting in August. But that portion of the new law, signed by President Trump in 2017, will now not go into effect until the spring semester of 2020.
Moving forward, until next December, housing stipends will be paid as if the original deadline never existed. Payments will be adjusted to account for a 2018 cost of living increase, and students will retroactively be paid the difference — or forgiven any overpayments — for discrepancies that occurred this fall. VA housing stipends are approximately 1 percent higher than what the Defense Department pays its E-5s with dependents in the same location.
However, despite numerous assurances from the VA that students’ payments would also be corrected based on their primary campus location once the IT updates were made, the VA is no longer planning to retroactively fix those payments because of the workload it would represent for schools, according to congressional staffers and veterans service organization officials. Cashour confirmed this.
Will the VA keep its promise?
VA’s announcement met with mixed reviews from lawmakers and veterans advocates, who have been pressing the department to resolve this issue for months. Many said they are still seeking answers about what, exactly, these changes mean and how many students they affect.
“For the past 11 months, VA has continually failed to deliver a functioning IT system that can process housing payments as dictated by the law,” House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Tim Walz, D-Minn., said in a statement, in which he also called the VA’s new Dec. 1, 2019 deadline “extremely optimistic.” “The changes VA announced today, however, raise more concerns than confidence that student veterans will be taken care of anytime soon.”
A committee aide questioned whether the VA has the authority to decide not to honor its promise to retroactively honor the portion of the housing stipend change based on a students’ primary campus location, when the law states that this should have been implemented already.
“You have to go back and make students whole,” the aide said, adding that the committee has asked the VA for legal justification. “Just saying we’re just not going to do it because it would be a lot of work is not an answer.”
Tanya Ang, vice president of Veterans Education Success, agreed this part of the VA’s solution is problematic.
“That could be hundreds of dollars for some students — per month,” she said. “If this was a disability benefit, this would never fly.”
In the meantime
However, Ang and other advocates are pleased that the near-term resolution should mitigate the severe payment delays that some GI Bill users have been experiencing.
In recorded testimony during a Nov. 15 hearing on Capitol Hill, VA Education Service Director Robert Worley said at that time, more than 10,000 education benefits claims had been pending between 31 and 60 days. Another 1,000 had been pending for longer. And although the pending inventory of education claims was three times higher than normal in September, it is now on par with normal levels, according to the VA.
“Students should not see the same delays in their housing stipends in the spring that they experienced in the fall,” said Lauren Augustine, vice president of government affairs for Student Veterans of America.
The VA is also scrapping its “initial interpretation” of the Forever GI Bill that counted the location of a student’s off-campus internship or medical practicum as a campus to be considered for a housing stipend, based on ZIP code. Moving forward, the VA will limit this to branch campuses, which have facility codes — the type of codes the VA has used to calculate housing stipends in the past. Sources said these technicalities were proving to be especially challenging, and understood the need for this change in the rules.
“I think that today shows the VA is listening and willing to hear advocates and hear Congress on some of the frustrations that students have seen,” said SVA’s Augustine. “They’re proving that they’re willing to set a new course and right the ship when it’s starting to roll.”
Other Congressional leaders who have taken the VA to task for the slow implementation said they are glad the VA is choosing to focus on getting student veterans their payments, even if it means pushing back the deadline for the IT updates to be completed.
“While I am disappointed that the VA does not yet have an effective IT system in place, I understand Secretary Wilkie’s decision to reset implementation of certain sections of the ‘Forever’ GI Bill while improvements continue to be made,” Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in a statement. “Right now, the VA’s priority must be to ensure accurate payments are sent to student veterans in a timely manner. Student veterans rely on the GI Bill to support themselves and their families while they are in school, and the VA is responsible for keeping those payments going, even as it implements the new law.”
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House veterans’ committee, which pressed VA leaders for a new deadline at the Nov. 15 hearing, said Wilkie’s move “will ensure that monthly housing payments are made with minimal delays.”
Both lawmakers said they would continue their efforts to hold the VA accountable. And advocates are hopeful the agency will listen to their concerns in the meantime.
“We’re hoping that their minds are not completely made up and that they’re willing to work with us on finding a better, more efficient solution,” Ang said.