Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the bill’s passage through the House on Thursday.
After a tumultuous fall semester of inaccurate housing stipends for thousands of Post-9/11 GI Bill students, Congress has passed a bill to hold the Veterans Affairs Department responsible for retroactively fixing these mistakes.
“For many student veterans, every dime counts. That’s why the VA needs to get this right and pay student veterans the full amount of money they were promised,” bill co-sponsor Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement. “I’m glad that my colleagues in the Senate saw how important this issue is, and I hope this bill stays on the fast track to becoming law, so we can make this right for our veterans.”
The Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Tuesday — just days before Congress breaks for the holidays and changes hands in the new year.
The House quickly took up the effort, passing it by a vote of 389 to 0 Thursday.
VA Sec. Robert Wilkie has already committed to retroactively reimbursing students who were underpaid this fall because of technology challenges that delayed the implementation of the Forever GI Bill, originally set to take hold Aug. 1.
The new law changed how housing stipends were to be calculated, bringing the payments in line with what active-duty E-5s with dependents receive for their basic housing allowance. It also directed VA to pay students based on the location of where they take the most classes, and not their schools' main campus.
Officials have said they will begin reimbursing students who did not receive a cost-of-living increase this fall starting in January; however, the VA will not have the technological capability to fix location-based errors until next December.
“This legislation will hold the VA accountable by requiring the department to establish a ‘Tiger Team’ with the specific focus on solving the problem of reimbursements and ensuring the veterans receive their full housing benefit,” said a spokeswoman for Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., the bill’s sponsor.
The Tiger Team would need to be established immediately, with names and titles of the employees provided to Congress within 15 days. Every 90 days, that team would be required to update Congress on the reimbursement plan and, by July 2020, report how many GI Bill beneficiaries were impacted, and to what extent.
The bill also holds the department to its promise not to collect on any overpayments made to GI Bill users.
Speaking on the House floor Thursday, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., described the VA’s IT systems as “ancient” and said the implementation of the Forever GI Bill was “bumpy, to say the least.”
“While I’m encouraged by Sec. Wilkie’s decision to reset implementation of the modifications, we owe it to our veterans to conduct oversight of this process,” he said. “This bill will ensure the VA does the right thing and pays student veterans ... what they are owed under law.”
Military Times Deputy Editor Leo Shane contributed to this story.