VA red tape cuts off GI bill benefits to US military veterans at foreign schools
Stars and Stripes January 30, 2023
An antiquated Veterans Administration system has led to scores of denials of education benefits, forcing former service members to pay thousands of dollars in overseas tuition costs that the government could be covering.
At issue is a requirement by the VA that foreign schools establish American bank accounts and U.S. employer identification numbers to receive electronic payments.
But most foreign universities have been unwilling to go through the hassle, given the relatively small number of GI Bill students, veterans say. The VA rule also effects the children of veterans since such education benefits can be transferred to kids.
“This is an injustice for our veterans and military families who earned these benefits. It truly is a mess,” said Army veteran Jana Tittle, who is part of an overseas grassroots effort to get the VA to act on the issue.
So far, the VA hasn’t budged on a payment policy that Tittle and other veterans say has had the unintended effect of leaving them on the financial hook.
The VA’s stance is that the schools are to blame for the noncompliance with its procedures, when the reality is the VA is shifting the blame to foreign schools instead of updating its own payment system, Tittle said.
The issue emerged in 2021 after the VA stopped sending paper checks to foreign schools and switched to electronic transfers.
It’s unclear why the VA is insisting foreign colleges get U.S. bank accounts and identification numbers, since there is no law requiring them to do so. For example, the VA routinely sends disability payments to veterans who hold foreign bank accounts.
The VA did not respond to a request made last week for comment on the issue. But while veterans say the agency has been unresponsive to their demands for change, an effort is afoot in Congress to address the matter.
In May, the House of Representatives passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., that directed the VA to update its payment processing system so foreign universities wouldn’t have to obtain a U.S. bank account or an American tax number for electronic payments to go through.
The bill, known as the GI Bill Foreign Institution Electronic Payments Act, easily passed by a vote of 397-15.
However, the legislation died in the Senate’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee without ever coming up for a vote.
Sherrill says she intends to bring the legislation back under a new Congress.
“After serving our nation, veterans should be able to access their GI Bill education benefits without unnecessary obstacles in their way,” Sherrill said in a statement Sunday to Stars and Stripes.
Veterans say they have encountered problems at schools throughout Europe and Asia. While it’s unclear how many have been affected, Tittle said estimates by veteran advocates have put the number as high as 3,000.
Army veteran Christian Pierce, a doctoral student at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, said his school dropped out of the GI Bill program because of the VA’s banking demands. So far, Pierce said, he’s lost out on $17,000 worth of benefits.
“The situation to receive my benefits has worsened due to the lack of activity by (the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee) and the lack of willingness to change by the VA,” Pierce said.
If the VA changes its policy, administrators at St. Gallen told him they would be happy to return to the GI Bill program, Pierce said.
The issues aren’t limited to just the GI Bill, though. Army veteran Brian Wright, who has three children attending colleges at different locations in Europe, is entitled to a dependents’ education stipend because of his disability stemming from his years of service.
Wright, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the VA’s banking rules are denying him a $1,300-per-month stipend for each of his children attending college that otherwise would help with cost-of-living expenses.
“I want people to stop thanking me for my service and do something about this,” Wright said. “Help us get what is owed and what is earned.”