VA reform law will push colleges to lower veteran tuition


By TRAVIS J. TRITTEN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 27, 2014

WASHINGTON — A federal law passed earlier this month directing a massive $16.3-billion overhaul of the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs health care system also aims to put pressure on colleges to lower education costs for veterans.

The law, called the Veterans’ Access to Care through Choice, Accountability, and Transparency Act, bars the VA from paying education assistance to colleges that charge veterans more than in-state tuition rates. Typically, students who reside in the same state as their public schools are given a break on tuition but veterans who moved often during their military careers may face difficulties meeting residency requirements.

The change means schools must either extend the lower tuition rates to veterans who use VA assistance or face losing revenue from the Montgomery GI Bill for active-duty forces and the new Post-9/11 GI Bill. Overcharging any one veteran would mean the loss of all VA tuition assistance payments, according to the staff of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., an architect of the VA overhaul law.

Significant money is at stake: The VA says it has doled out more than $20 billion in benefits to 773,000 vets and their family members under the Post-9/11 GI Bill since it became effective in 2009.

The law does not mandate the lower tuition, but instead gives a strong incentive for public colleges to tweak residency requirements and what they charge veterans, congressional staff members said.

The approach is similar to how the federal government pushed states to create uniform age limits for alcohol consumption in the 1980s, staff said.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 requires states to prohibit anyone under 21 years old from purchasing or possessing alcohol or face losing federal highway funding, which is key to the construction and upkeep of roads and infrastructure.

President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on Aug. 7. For Fry Scholarship changes, the effective date is January 2015. For residency changes, the effective date is July 2015.

The overhaul came after months of scandal and outrage over the nationwide veteran health care system and revelations that veterans were unable to get timely appointments for treatment.

The law dramatically expands veteran access to private care, adds medical staff and facilities, and streamlines the firing of VA executives found to be incompetent or guilty of manipulating patient data.

Twitter: @Travis_Tritten