(U.S. Air Force)

WASHINGTON – Congress approved legislation Thursday to ensure student veterans who didn’t receive monthly housing payments during the fall semester or received the wrong amounts get the money they’re due.

The Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act creates a “tiger team” at the Department of Veterans Affairs responsible for planning how the agency will remedy the widespread payment failures. The Senate unanimously passed the bill Wednesday night, one of the last days of the congressional session. The House approved it with a 389-0 vote Thursday, and it now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature to make it a law.

“As we continue our oversight of VA’s implementation of the GI Bill, I’m glad this bill provides us with more tools to do so,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., slated to be the next chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

During the fall semester, thousands of veterans received incorrect monthly housing stipends or experienced delays getting them. The stipends are used by GI Bill recipients to pay their rent, bills and other living expenses.

The delayed and incorrect payments are a result of information technology failures caused when the VA went to implement part of the new Forever GI Bill — a major expansion of veterans’ education benefits that Congress passed last year.

VA Undersecretary of Benefits Paul Lawrence told lawmakers last month that students could expect payments in January that would make up for the lost money this semester. However, advocacy groups, such as Student Veterans of America, have questions about how the VA will handle the workload to process retroactive payments.

Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who sponsored the legislation, also has concerns.

At a hearing Wednesday at which VA Secretary Robert Wilkie testified, Boozman described a recent briefing with VA staff at which they were unprepared to discuss the GI Bill problems.

“During a staff briefing about how the VA is going to fix its implementation of the Forever GI Bill monthly housing stipends, the VA was unprepared to answer basic oversight questions about how much funding had been spent on failed attempts, how much funding had been spent on efforts to react to the problems and what lessons the VA had learned in the situation that it could take forward with other implementation efforts,” he said. “These aren’t hard-hitting questions. These are just the basics.”

Boozman said Thursday that the Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act was a way to “directly confront the VA’s errors” and make certain they don’t go uncorrected.

Under the bill, Wilkie has to submit to Congress a list of employees on the tiger team within 15 days.

Besides the immediate task of repaying veterans shorted during the fall semester, the VA will have to make retroactive payments beginning in December 2019 for veterans who will get wrong payments during the next year.

Part of the new GI Bill changed how veterans’ housing allowances are calculated — they’re now supposed to be based on where veterans take classes, rather than defaulting to their school’s main campus. The change was supposed to be made by Aug. 1, 2018, but IT problems have set back implementation to Dec. 1, 2019.

The affected veterans should be getting paid larger housing stipends because their locations have higher costs of living than where their schools are based. For example, a student attending a University of Pennsylvania campus in San Francisco will receive a Philadelphia rate for their housing allowances during the next year rather than the San Francisco rate, which would be much higher.

The tiger team created would be required to update Congress every 90 days on plans to pay those students. By July 2020, the team has to report to Congress how many GI Bill recipients were affected, broken down by state and to what extent.

Some veterans have been – and will be – overpaid because of the VA’s errors. The Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act prevents the agency from trying to collect that money.

“For many student veterans, every dime counts,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement. “That’s why the VA needs to get this right and pay student veterans the full amount of money they were promised. I’m glad this bill will soon become law, so we can make this right for our veterans.” Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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