Military Update: VA, lawmakers share blame for GI Bill delay
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki got a bipartisan hug from the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday as lawmakers accepted his plan to fix Post-9/11 GI Bill payment delays, and blamed their own rush to enact the complex education benefit last year for some of the challenges VA now faces.
Many veterans using new GI Bill benefits for fall classes had not received their monthly living allowance or lump sum book stipend by early October. In response, Shinseki authorized emergency payments of up to $3,000, supplied through VA’s 57 regional offices or by registering for the payment online. Within two days of the Oct. 2 start of emergency payments, 25,000 students either had received checks or expected them soon by mail.
A number of “complications” caused the payment delays, Shinseki explained. One factor was VA officials underestimated the number of claim processors they needed by the Aug. 3 start date. Early estimates were based on processing time under the Montgomery GI Bill program, he said.
But processing Montgomery GI Bill payments involves two to three steps and takes an average of 15 minutes versus nine steps and more than an hour to process a Post-9/11 GI Bill application, Shinseki explained. Unlike Montgomery GI Bill benefits, Post-9/11 payments vary by school location and other unique factors.
Though processors get an assist from computers, they review applications manually. By mid-November, Shinseki said, an upgrade should speed the process enough to clear the current backlog and avoid payment delays in the spring semester.
Another factor is that some colleges have been slow in sending certificates of enrollment for students using the GI Bill to the VA. VA needs the certificates before reimbursing schools for tuition and fees or paying living allowances and book stipends directly to students.
Shinseki said he liked an idea, raised by Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., ranking member on the committee, to modify the law so that future payments to students are handled separately from school reimbursements.
Committee leaders exchanged congratulations with Shinseki on working together on a bill the president will sign this month that allows Congress, starting next year, to fund VA health care budgets a year in advance, thus ending annual funding delays for VA facilities tied to politics.
More kind words were exchanged with Shinseki over his cooperation on a 2010 VA budget that surpasses last year’s budget by $14.5 billion, and will exceed for a third straight year the “Independent Budget” proposed annually for VA by major veterans’ service organizations.
Both Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., committee chairman, and Buyer praised Shinseki for integrity and candor in promptly revealing and addressing problems that have surfaced at VA since he took charge last February.
“We think you’re doing a great job,” said Filner. “I know you were called a soldier’s soldier when you were in the Army. And now I’m calling you a veteran’s veteran.”
Shinseki listed the major challenges and mistakes of recent months in his opening statement. Besides a rough start launching the new GI Bill, they include a rising backlog of veterans’ benefit claims, lapses at several VA medical centers in disinfecting endoscopes and other reusable VA medical equipment; and a mailing to 1,800 veterans advising them erroneously that they had been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
As if encouraging Shinseki to remain as secretary despite the challenges, lawmaker after lawmaker said Congress must share the blame for GI Bill payment delays that generated plenty of phone calls and e-mails to their offices from student veterans in financial binds.
“Congress should accept some of the blame for creating such a complex and difficult benefit to administer,” said Buyer. “I will acknowledge we created this challenge and the burden lies upon you to supervise and find a way to prevent the delays that are causing the financial difficulties.”
“The great thing about a good organization is when you don’t get the assumptions right, you react,” Shinseki said, explaining that it took only a week for program officials to put the emergency payment plan together.
He praised Veterans’ Benefits Administration employees for working hard to implement the program as best they could with too small a staff and with computer technology that couldn’t be upgraded in a timely way.
“We do have some problems. It’s not the VA’s fault. You guys have been working very, very hard,” said Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark.
Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., recalled a conversation he had with Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., who chairs a subcommittee that oversees VA education benefits, on the House floor last year as the new GI Bill was passed.
“She said to me, ‘It’s not ready yet. … We’ve got some technical issues that we need to work out. It’s going to cause problems when we try to implement it,’ ” Snyder recalled. “Of course, in the legislative process, sometimes you have to go when it’s time to go and get the bill passed.”
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