VA says it reversed course on underpaid GI Bill recipients, though lawmakers remain skeptical
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 3, 2018
WASHINGTON — After Department of Veterans Affairs officials admitted the agency had no plans to retroactively pay some student veterans who are likely to receive incorrect housing stipends during the next year, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie reversed course, saying every underpaid GI Bill recipient will get what they are due.
The statement from Wilkie on Thursday night was met with skepticism from lawmakers, but as of Monday, some Republican lawmakers and veterans groups had spoken to the VA and believed all veterans would get paid. Some Democrats remained doubtful.
The incorrect payments that could be made during the next year are a result of setbacks in implementing a new “Forever” GI Bill — a major expansion of veterans’ education benefits that Congress passed last year.
Part of the new GI Bill changed how veterans’ housing allowances are calculated — they’re now supposed to be based on where veterans take classes, rather than defaulting to their school’s main campus. The change was supposed to be made by Aug. 1, 2018, but information technology problems have set back implementation to Dec. 1, 2019.
The affected veterans should be getting paid larger housing stipends because their locations have higher costs of living than where their schools are based. For example, a student attending a University of Pennsylvania campus in San Francisco will receive a Philadelphia rate for their housing allowances during the next year rather than the San Francisco rate, which would be much higher.
“We did talk to the VA, and they’re doing what we’ve asked,” said Tanya Ang, director of policy and outreach for Veterans Education Success, a nonprofit that advocates for education programs for veterans. “That is, to make sure students who made decisions to go to a certain campus based on the housing allowance they thought they were going to get would indeed get that money.”
That wasn’t the VA’s position Thursday at a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subcommittee hearing, where Undersecretary of Benefits Paul Lawrence reluctantly acknowledged the VA didn’t have plans to pay that group of veterans.
The reasoning, Lawrence said, was the burden to schools and the amount of claims it could add to the VA workload. It remains unknown how many veterans could be affected and how much money they might be owed.
“We also have to think about the broad veteran population and determine whether it yields any benefits, or just work,” Lawrence said.
Later Thursday, Wilkie issued a statement overriding Lawrence’s comments.
“We will work with lawmakers to ensure that — once VA is in a position to process education claims in accordance with the new law – each and every beneficiary will receive retroactively the exact benefits to which they are entitled under that law,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs described the statement as “unambiguous.” Rep Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the committee chairman who pressed Lawrence on the issue Thursday, said Wilkie was “doing right by veterans.”
“I am encouraged to know that our student veterans will receive what they earned, despite the burden it may place on VA to do so,” Roe said.
Student Veterans of America, which has been monitoring problems with the GI Bill this semester, believes Wilkie’s statement clears up the confusion.
SVA and Veterans Education Success now have questions, though, about how the VA will handle the workload next December. This semester, thousands of veterans experienced delays in receiving their monthly housing stipends while the VA worked to fix IT errors.
“There are still a couple of outstanding questions on the specifics of the new path forward, which should be answered as VA provides more details on how they will proceed,” Lauren Augustine, SVA vice president of government affairs, said in a statement. “The most important being what resources, either money or manpower, does VA need to process these retroactive payments effectively?”
Confusion last week about the retroactive payments prompted a barrage of letters from angry lawmakers, insisting the VA reimburse all underpaid veterans. Even with Wilkie’s statement Thursday, some of those lawmakers, particularly Democrats, still want answers.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House VA committee, wasn’t satisfied with the statement, said Griffin Anderson, his communications director. Anderson noted the VA hadn’t been clear previously about who would get paid and Lawrence only acknowledged having no plans to reimburse some veterans after the question had been asked repeatedly by multiple lawmakers.
“The constant obfuscation calls the legitimacy of Wilkie’s statement into question,” Anderson said. “House Democrats want Secretary Wilkie to say loud and clear that VA will make GI Bill beneficiaries under Section 107 of the Forever GI Bill whole.”
Section 107 is the portion of the new GI Bill that changes calculations for veterans’ housing allowances.
House Democrats, led by Walz and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., sent a letter to Wilkie on Friday seeking straightforward answers. They asked for a response by Dec. 14.
The VA has been more clear that veterans underpaid for other reasons this semester would receive retroactive payments. Because of the IT problems this semester, the VA reverted to paying students their housing allowances based on 2017 rates that didn’t account for cost-of-living increases in 2018. Those veterans can expect a retroactive payment in January for the amount they’re owed, the VA said.