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ARLINGTON, Va. — Despite an overhaul of post-9/11 GI Bill benefits this August, Veterans Affairs officials don’t expect a repeat of the major tuition delays and paperwork headaches they saw with the education benefits two years ago.

“We are highly confident we will not see things go back to the way they were in fall 2009,” said Roger W. Baker, the department’s assistant secretary for information and technology. “The fundamental technology we’ve implemented was designed specifically for this situation.”

Earlier this month, President Barack Obama signed into law a host of changes to the higher education benefits, including an expansion of housing stipends for online programs, new tuition payouts for students attending private colleges, and inclusion of vocational training programs within the post-9/11 GI Bill program.

Nearly all of those changes will go into effect in the fall 2011 semester, giving students and VA administrators months to prepare for the changes.

Still, the changes are only slightly less comprehensive than the major overhaul passed by Congress in 2008, and that move created a paperwork nightmare when the new benefits went into effect in August 2009.

The absence of a computerized benefits systems and a shortage of claims adjusters to process the benefits by hand left some students waiting months for payouts, threatening their college enrollment and financial stability. The VA was forced to hand out temporary checks worth thousands of dollars to tide over the students until the backlog could be processed.

But acting Undersecretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff said systems put in place since then should prevent similar problems. He said the fall 2009 disasters stemmed from a short timetable to implement the new education benefits and the VA’s own mistakes in underestimating the number of claims adjusters to handle the workload, and both of those issues have been resolved now.

The VA has paid out about $8.1 billion in tuition and education stipends since August 2009, to more than 440,000 students. Officials said the average turnaround time for new GI Bill claims in fall 2009 was about 59 days. Last semester, it was 24 days.

“Everything was an unknown back in 2009,” Walcoff said. “We really didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be. I think we’re in a lot better situation now. We have a lot more experience with this. The changes in there now will not fundamentally change our approach to processing.”

VA officials are expected to send letters in coming weeks to all GI Bill students, detailing the legislative changes and what it means for their individual payouts.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

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