Veteran groups divide over tighter transfer rules for GI Bill
By TOM PHILPOTT | SPECIAL TO STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 9, 2018
Two of the nation’s largest veteran service organizations hold opposing views on the Defense Department’s plan to tighten rules next year on the transfer of Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits to servicemembers’ spouses and children.
DOD officials have said that, starting in July 2019, eligibility to transfer GI Bill benefits to family will be limited to servicemembers having fewer than 16 years’ total service — active duty, drilling reserve or a combination of the two.
Careerists currently face no such deadline on deciding to transfer of Post-9/11 education benefits. Not to be changed is a provision that requires a servicemember to have at least six years of service to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
“The American Legion is 100 percent opposed to the curtailment of veterans’ earned benefits,” said Joseph M. Plenzler, the Legion’s director of media relations. “We understand the minimum time in service for transferability for retention purposes. That makes sense,” said Plenzler. “But the 16-year cap on the transferability significantly limits a veteran’s ability to execute the full economic potential of that benefit in a way that best suits the veteran and his or her family.”
The Legion expects the department “to consult with the veteran community before unilaterally making sweeping decisions that impact all of us. This is a bad policy and our veterans deserve better. We are disappointed,” Plenzler said, “and are addressing this issue with DOD officials and our elected leaders on Capitol Hill.”
The Veterans of Foreign Wars does not oppose the new 16-year cap.
Congress intended GI Bill transferability to be a retention tool to encourage more members to stay for full careers, said Carlos Fuentes, director VFW’s National Legislative Service. Consequently, it gave the department authority to adjust eligibility based on “its need to retain servicemembers,” he said.
“We are urging servicemembers to transfer benefits now, while they can, and later adjust the number of months each beneficiary will get,” said Fuentes. “Most people aren’t aware that they can adjust benefit amounts after the [new] 16-year mark and [even] after they leave military service.”
Eileen Huck, deputy director of government relations for National Military Family Association, called the policy change “unfortunate” and added that "many service members and families are understandably upset."
“However,” she said, “the reality is GI Bill transferability has always been a retention tool rather than a benefit, although that distinction was not always clearly communicated to families.”
Given its retention tool status, she said, “it’s not surprising that DOD would change the eligibility policy based on retention needs. Our focus right now is on raising awareness among families that this change is coming, and to encourage those who are eligible to make the transfer sooner rather than later.”
DOD officials advised advocacy groups that only 9 percent of careerists with dependents have not transferred GI Bill benefits to family members by their 16th year of service, which should ease the level of complaints, Huck said.
“A lot of the outcry I heard on social media was from families who mistakenly believed the policy change would affect them,” she said. “For example, many people believed transferred benefits would have to be used before the servicemember reached 16 years,” which is not the case. “So, in addition to raising awareness about the policy change, we’re trying to educate people about how transferability works.”
The department made other rule changes on transfer of GI Bill benefits last month that took effect immediately. Fewer servicemembers now can transfer benefits and avoid the requirement of serving an additional four years. Members who are unable to serve that long because of policy or statute — for example if they bump up against high-year tenure rules or face mandatory retirement, or are not medically qualified — no longer can transfer their GI bill benefits.
The department had been allowing members with at least 10 years of service to transfer education benefits to family without having to serve the required full four years if prevented from doing so by policy or statute. The 10-years-of-service exception is gone. Now all servicemembers must be eligible to be retained for four more years at the time they elect to transfer Post-9/11 education benefits.
Servicemembers who do elect to transfer benefits and later aren’t able to complete their full service obligation due to “force shaping” policies that cause involuntary separation or retirement will retain their eligibility to transfer benefits.
With the Post-9/11 GI Bill, Congress enhanced veteran education benefits for military volunteers in an era of sustained conflict, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It took effect Aug. 1, 2009. Individuals who served on active duty for 36 months after Sept. 10, 2011, could receive enough benefits to cover in-state tuition and fees at public institutions of higher learning, or, by 2018, up to $23,672 annually in benefits toward private colleges. They also get a monthly housing allowance that varies on location. Actual benefit payments vary, too, based on length of qualifying active duty, rate of education pursued and education program.
This year almost 800,000 individuals will use Post-9/11 benefits at a cost to the U.S. Treasury of $12 billion, the Congressional Research Service reports.
The transferability feature, however, was only offered to people in service on or after the start of the new GI Bill because its purpose was to improve retention.
About $1.8 billion in GI Bill costs last year were transferred benefits used by 128,500 family members, said a Department of Veteran Affairs official. Neither VA nor DOD could break out benefit amounts by children and spouses, nor had they calculated, they said, how transferred benefit costs might fall under the new rules.
Individual service branches too had minimal data at the ready to show the scope of transferred GI Bill benefits. Apart from members making transferability decisions earlier now in their careers, said an Air Force spokeswoman, it could take until 2021 or later to see any impact on force retention from the new rules.
“This has been a popular program and we do not anticipate a significant decline in the number of people who take advantage of the benefit,” she said.
The Navy expects to see interest in GI Bill transferability increase in the year ahead “as sailors with over 16 years of total service must make the decision whether or not to transfer their education benefits,” said Lt. Rick Moore, a spokesman for the Chief of Naval Personnel.
No service had data on how transferability had improved force retention.
“Given all of the factors that impact retention behavior, it is not possible to isolate a single factor,” said Moore. “However, the interest generated by this policy change could indicate a propensity for career-minded sailors to continue in service.”
WHO REALLY RUNS THE VA? — ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, published a jarring story Aug. 7 on how three wealthy friends of President Donald Trump, members of his Mar-a-Lago resort who never served in the military, have set policy and controlled senior positions at the Department of Veterans Affairs during his presidency. The story is based in part on thousands of emails between these wealthy friends and VA leaders, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Democrats on the veterans’ affairs committees are demanding a congressional investigation.