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Congress pushes effort to protect GI Bill benefits amid coronavirus outbreak

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., makes a point during a joint House-Senate hearing with American Legion leadership, March 11, 2020 on Capitol Hill.

STARS AND STRIPES

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 11, 2020

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WASHINGTON — Senate and House lawmakers on Wednesday introduced bills in both chambers that would assure housing stipends for student veterans would go uninterrupted and unchanged amid college campuses shutting down due to the coronavirus crisis.

The bills were introduced as a growing number of colleges and universities throughout the country announced this week that they will hold online courses only, ushering in uncertainty on what happens to the thousands of GI Bill recipients who rely on monthly housing stipends to attend school.

Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the ranking Republican of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, introduced H.R. 6194, a bill that aims to guarantee the housing stipends for student veterans remain unchanged during the outbreak. Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Jon Tester of Montana, the committee’s ranking Democrat, introduced a companion measure in the upper chamber.

The bills assure students who switch to online courses in a sudden emergency out of their control would retain the housing allowances that they received when they started the semester.

The measure covers students through December. If the coronavirus outbreak continues into 2021, or if schools shut down due to another national crisis later, the bill would need to be revisited.

“No student veteran, dependent, or spouse should be worried about their GI Bill benefits being reduced or cut off because of actions their school is taking in response to [coronavirus]," Roe said in a statement. "My bill would ensure that [Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie] has the flexibility to continue serving students well during times of uncertainty and I am committed to seeing it signed into law quickly.”

Every student using the GI Bill gets a monthly housing stipend that is based on the zip code of the school at which they attend the most courses.

This can range across the country and could amount to a large sum in urban areas with a high cost of living. Yet, there is a fixed $894.50 monthly amount for online schooling, which could be a steep decrease for some students.

“The uncertainty facing student veterans in the wake of unexpected school closures and changes in response to [coronavirus] is unprecedented,” said Jared Lyon, CEO and national president of Student Veterans of America, a nonpartisan advocacy group for student veterans. “This critical, time-sensitive legislation explicitly ensures student veterans will be able to continue to attend school and experience no changes to monthly housing allowances as more schools take [coronavirus] prevention measures.”

With some student veterans booted from campuses across the country already, there is an urgency from lawmakers to get the measure passed.

“We must swiftly pass this bill to make certain that veterans still receive the benefits they’ve earned despite concerns surrounding the coronavirus,” Moran said in a statement.

beynon.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon

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