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House lawmakers question VA’s ability to meet deadline for GI Bill changes

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 9, 2019

WASHINGTON – Department of Veterans Affairs officials tried to assuage doubts from House lawmakers Thursday about the agency’s ability to successfully implement changes to veterans’ education benefits later this year.

Following a missed deadline in the fall, the VA set a new expectation to have the changes in place by Dec. 1, in time for the spring 2020 semester. Members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on Thursday brought VA officials to a joint hearing on Capitol Hill, where they questioned whether the department could follow through.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t just a bit skeptical,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla. “After all, last year these same kinds of assurances were given to the committee time and time again.”

The Forever GI Bill, approved by Congress in 2017, is a major expansion of veterans’ education benefits. When officials went to make the necessary changes to its information technology systems in the fall, they faced critical errors that resulted in late and incorrect monthly living stipends for student veterans.

In some cases, the delays left veterans scrambling to pay their rent and other bills.

The VA Office of Inspector General reported in March that a lack of accountable leadership was to blame for the problems. Since then, the VA established a team dedicated to meeting the Dec. 1 deadline, said VA Undersecretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence.

“We have 10 people that this is their full-time job, this is what they do,” Lawrence said. “There’s a clear focus.”

Charmain Bogue, director of education services at the VA, said the agency would test its new IT system in June and again in October.

“We should have a good sense in early October whether it’s ready for prime-time on Dec. 1,” Bogue said.

Following the Dec. 1 deadline, the VA should be able to provide retroactive funds to all veterans who received incorrect payments and haven’t already been reimbursed, she said.

The onus will be on the more than 14,000 VA-approved schools to submit students’ information in order for them to be paid retroactively. The VA isn’t aware yet of the total amount owed or the number of veterans who were affected.

The VA is providing regular briefings to Congress about the process, but Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., described the relationship between VA officials and lawmakers as “somewhat strained,” following delays by the department to share contracting information related to the project.

Levin, chairman of the subcommittee on economic opportunity, said he would schedule another hearing after the VA has tested its new IT system.

“While things haven’t gone smoothly with the Forever GI Bill implementation, it’s important to know we share the same goal,” he said. “We have to take control of this process to prevent the same mishaps from happening again.”

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling
 

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