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Time running out on GI Bill fixes

WASHINGTON — Time is running out to fix problems with new GI Bill payments for next semester.

Last week, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee approved legislation to guarantee that veterans attending private colleges will have the same tuition payouts until they graduate, despite changes set to go into effect Aug. 1.

The legislation is similar to an initiative passed by the House in May, with the goal of preventing student veterans from facing deep debt from lower reimbursement rates.

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Veterans groups have praised both measures as important steps toward ensuring that veterans can finish their degrees. But Senate officials acknowledge that it could be weeks before the full chamber takes action on either bill, if they get to the matter at all this summer.

And Veterans Affairs officials warn that any change this late in the year could potentially disrupt all GI Bill payments, a situation reminiscent of the disastrous rollout of the post-9/11 GI Bill benefits two years ago.

In a statement, VA spokesman Drew Brookie said that the VA has been working with lawmakers to deal with potential debt problems students could face with the new payout rules.

“At the same time, we need to make sure that any change in law that would provide this relief doesn’t have the effect of disrupting the administration of the program for the larger group of GI Bill beneficiaries,” he said.

The problem stems from changes made by Congress in December in an attempt to make the college tuition benefit more equitable for all veterans.

Previously, students attending private colleges received payments equal to the most expensive public university in their home state. Because that lead to widely different payouts for veterans in the same classrooms, lawmakers replaced that formula with a $17,500 yearly maximum on tuition and fees for students at private universities.

Students attending classes for the first time this fall won’t notice the change, and thousands of students who had been receiving less than that for tuition will benefit from the change.

But about 30,000 veterans from states with previously higher rates -– students from Texas, for example, could get more than $47,000 in tuition last semester -– will suddenly need to come up with thousands of dollars to continue their private college classes because of the cap.

Last month, the House unanimously approved legislation sponsored by House Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., which would allow veterans already in college to keep the higher reimbursement rates until graduation, ensuring that those students don’t accrue any new debt.

To pay for the $50 million cost of the grandfathered tuition rates, Miller’s bill would eliminate a proposed fee reduction on VA home loans for homebuyers who have a down payment of less than 5 percent.

Legislation moving in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would provide the same grandfathered GI Bill rates with slightly different changes to the VA home loan fees. The issues would need to be reconciled before the changes could become law, a process that could take days or months.

If the measure is passed before Aug. 1, or later and made retroactive to that date, VA officials will face a daunting task of identifying which students are eligible for more money and correcting their tuition payments.

Two months ago, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration Keith Wilson said that the massive changes included in Miller and Schumer’s bills would force claims workers to go back to manual processing of GI Bill payouts.

That will undoubtedly slow processing times, he said, and could “negatively impact our ability to deliver timely benefits during the crucial fall enrollment period.”

Miller and other lawmakers in the House and Senate have said publicly they understand the challenges, but believe the risk of students facing unexpected debt warrant the changes. Lawmakers from both chambers are hopeful they can address the issue this month.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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