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WASHINGTON – More than 30,000 student veterans enrolled in classes this fall still have not seen their first checks under the new GI Bill, and some of them might not get any official payments until 2010, Veterans Affairs officials said Thursday.

Keith Wilson, director of the VA’s education services, told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee that claims workers hope to get through the backlog before the start of spring semester, and officials are still using mandatory overtime to help process the thousands of pending claims.

As of this week, about 52,000 currently enrolled student veterans or eligible family members are receiving their housing stipends, book allowances and tuition payments, but the rest could take weeks or months to process.

“[VA Secretary Eric Shinseki] has made it clear to everyone that any delay in payments is unacceptable,” Wilson said. “I know what it’s like to stand in line for food stamps after defending this country. I take this very personally, and we’re going to fix it.”

All 82,000 people enrolled under the new GI Bill this fall were eligible for a $3,000 emergency payments, an advance on unprocessed education claims designed to keep veterans from taking out loans or dropping out of school because of mounting bills. In the first week of the program this month, more than 41,000 students signed up for the checks.

Those emergency payouts came after criticism last month from veterans groups and lawmakers about the growing list of students not receiving any new GI Bill money, despite promises the program would be ready by Aug. 1.

On Wednesday, Shinseki told the committee that mistakes in processing time estimates – sorting through just one new GI Bill claim takes on over an hour – coupled with the large numbers of students using the benefit caused a larger workload than the VA anticipated.

A new automated computer system is expected to simplify that process, but the system won’t be fully operational until December 2010, Wilson said. That drew criticism from lawmakers, who worry that students enrolling in classes next spring and fall could face similar delays.

Wilson said the VA is working to better the system for the spring, and is confident that the program will run smoother once the initial backlog is processed. More than 213,000 applications have been processed for the new education benefit since the summer, although the majority of those are veterans looking to use the money for school in coming years and not this semester.

Congress passed the new GI Bill benefits – the first major overhaul of the education benefit in decades – in summer 2008. The new program promises any servicemember who served at least three years on active duty since September 2001 tuition payouts equal to a four years at their state’s most expensive public school, plus a monthly living stipend and $1,000 for books each year.

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