VA lead­ers vow Post-9/11 GI Bill al­lowance de­lays al­most over

The Sun Herald (Sunday) - - News - BY TOM PHILPOTT To com­ment, write Mil­i­tary Up­date, P.O. Box 231111, Cen­tre­ville, VA, 20120. Twit­ter: Tom Philpott @Mil­i­tary_Up­date

Blam­ing old com­put­ers and unan­tic­i­pated soft­ware chal­lenges, the De­part­ment of Vet­eran Af­fairs saw its pend­ing claims in­ven­tory from Post-9/11 GI Bill par­tic­i­pants peak in mid-Septem­ber at 207,000, which was three times higher than nor­mal for the start of a fall se­mes­ter.

The sud­den back­log caused pay­ment de­lays of the hous­ing al­lowance that stu­dent vet­er­ans rely on to pay monthly rent and other liv­ing ex­penses.

The back­log now is down two thirds, to 73,000. But 11,000 of the re­main­ing claims are more than 30 days old and 1,000 more than 60 days old, vi­o­lat­ing the VA stan­dard to process GI Bill claims within 28 days, of­fi­cials con­ceded to the House vet­er­ans af­fairs’ sub­com­mit­tee on eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity last week.

Law­mak­ers crit­i­cized VA lead­ers and legacy com­puter sys­tems that seem to defy mod­ern­iza­tion de­spite Con­gress year af­ter year al­lo­cat­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for VA in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy up­grades.

VA of­fi­cials in turn cited both of a web of ag­ing and in­ter­con­nected com­puter sys­tems, but also a new law that added mind-bog­gling com­plex­ity to a GI Bill al­lowance, de­pend­ing on where, when and how stu­dents use their ben­e­fits.

Paul R. Lawrence, VA’s un­der­sec­re­tary for ben­e­fits, vowed that GI Bill users won’t be in­con­ve­nienced by sys­temic pay­ment de­lays again in the 2019 spring se­mes­ter. But he also warned that hous­ing al­lowance pay­ments still might not be ac­cu­rately cal­cu­lated by then be­cause the soft­ware chal­lenges per­sist.

Tes­ti­fy­ing with Lawrence, of­fi­cials re­spon­si­ble for ad­min­is­ter­ing GI Bill ben­e­fits, and oth­ers for re­pro­gram­ming com­put­ers to en­sure timely and accu- rate pay­ments, said they un­der­es­ti­mated the com­plex­ity changes di­rected by the Harry W. Colmery Vet­er­ans Ed­u­ca­tional As­sis­tance Act signed into law in Au­gust 2017.

That law also is called the “For­ever GI Bill” be­cause it elim­i­nated the 15-year time limit on us­ing Post-9/11 GI Bill ben­e­fits for vet­er­ans given fi­nal dis­charges or re­leases from ac­tive duty on or af­ter Jan. 1, 2013. It re­moved the same time limit for chil­dren of de­ceased ser­vice­mem­bers who be­came en­ti­tled to GI Bill ben­e­fits on or af­ter that date, and for sur­viv­ing spouses us­ing the Fry Schol­ar­ship pro­gram.

How­ever, to pay for these and other ben­e­fit en­hance­ments, the new law also changed in two ways how the Post-9/11 hous­ing al­lowance fea­ture is cal­cu­lated for new users to save bil­lions of dol­lars. In­deed, the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice es­ti­mates that GI Bill al­lowance sav­ings will to­tal $3.4 bil­lion through 2027.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill al­lowance is set to match mil­i­tary Ba­sic Al­lowance for Hous­ing rate for mar­ried en­listed mem­bers in pay grade E-5. That rate varies by hous­ing lo­cale and is ad­justed an­nu­ally to keep pace with lo­cal rental costs.

The first change made by the Colmery Act re­quired that the al­lowance be based on where stu­dents phys­i­cally at­tend classes rather than the lo­ca­tion of col­leges or schools where stu­dents are en­rolled. So, if a col­lege is head­quar­tered in a city but stu­dents takes cour­ses at smaller town cam­puses or on­line cour­ses from sub­ur­bia or ru­ral res­i­dences, the al­lowance falls. Cur­rent GI Bill users, how­ever, are pro­tected from the change; it ap­plies only to stu­dents who ini­tially en­roll in classes on or af­ter Aug. 1, 2018.

The sec­ond al­lowance change also ap­plies prospec­tively, to vet­er­ans who first use their GI Bill on or af­ter Jan. 1, 2018. This change takes ac­count of how Con­gress has damp­ened the value of mil­i­tary hous­ing al­lowances in re­cent years by adopt­ing a five-year plan to curb in­fla­tion ad­just­ments to rates by a full per­cent­age point per year. Con­gress had ex­empted the GI Bill stipend from this ini­tia­tive. The Colmery law re­pealed the rate pro­tec­tion for new stu­dent vet­er­ans. Those who be­gan us­ing their GI Bill be­fore Jan. 1, 2018, con­tinue to re­ceive the higher non-ad­justed al­lowance rate for E-5, which the mil­i­tary no longer uses.

As late as July this year, VA of­fi­cials had re­as­sured law­mak­ers that de­spite the com­plex­ity of these changes, and ris­ing dif­fi­culty mak­ing soft­ware changes across sep­a­rate older com­puter sys­tems, the changes would be made in time to avoid sig­nif­i­cant pay­ment de­lays for the fall se­mes­ter. That fore­cast was wrong. The House sub­com­mit­tee last Thurs­day pressed of­fi­cials to ex­plain why.

Rep. Jodey Ar­ring­ton (R-Texas), its chair­man, re­minded Lawrence that four months ago VA promised de­lays would be short and not sig­nif­i­cantly im­pact stu­dents. Yet some stu­dent vet­er­ans are “in pretty bad sit­u­a­tions” from al­lowance de­lays “and we’re hear­ing from them.”

What par­tic­u­larly irked Ar­ring­ton and his col­leagues, he said, is that, af­ter miss­ing its own midAu­gust dead­line to have soft­ware up­grades com­pleted, VA re­fuses to set an­other dead­line so law­mak­ers can hold the de­part­ment to ac­count

“VA still does not know when they will be ready to de­ploy proper pay­ments to GI Bill re­cip­i­ents,” said Ar­ring­ton. “I find the de­lays sim­ply un­ac­cept­able” par­tic­u­larly those “stretch­ing over 60 days. Some of these guys are go­ing to have some real hard­ship, maybe even per­sonal fam­ily crises, as a re­sult of this.”

Lawrence said VA con­tin­ues “to work on get­ting this right.” Pre­vi­ously al­lowances were set us­ing the schools’ fa­cil­ity codes for main cam­puses. The new law rec­og­nizes that stu­dents can earn mul­ti­ple cred­its at dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions in­clud­ing with in­tern­ships, ex­tern­ships, sem­i­nars and work­shops. ZIP Codes of lo­ca­tions where stu­dents earn cred- its is the new way for set­ting al­lowances and soft­ware must cap­ture the lo­ca­tion where most se­mes­ter cred­its are earned.

That re­quires new, more com­plex com­pu­ta­tions and it’s all “far more com­pli­cated than orig­i­nally es­ti­mated,” Lawrence said. “We’re plan­ning for the pos­si­bil­ity we may not have the new soft­ware ready for the spring se­mes­ter. Should that hap­pen we’ll be pre­pared to process claims as we have been do­ing to en­sure stu­dents con­tinue to re­ceive their al­lowances, and schools will re­ceive their tu­ition pay­ments. We will con­tinue to do that for as long as nec­es­sary.”

For stu­dent vet­er­ans get­ting higher al­lowances than the new law al­lows, VA won’t seek re­im­burse­ment, Lawrence promised. VA’s direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tion ser­vice, re­tired Maj. Gen. Robert M. Wor­ley II, un­der­scored that point to skep­ti­cal law­mak­ers.

Be­cause of de­layed soft­ware changes, Wor­ley said, “we are pay­ing in­cor­rect hous­ing to our ben­e­fi­cia­ries. De­pend­ing on when they started school, some of those ben­e­fi­cia­ries are re­ceiv­ing about $69 more than they should be get­ting be­cause we haven’t ap­plied the new DoD rate to them. Oth­ers who are ex­ist­ing stu­dents al­ready are not re­ceiv­ing a less-than-oneper­cent in­crease that was im­ple­mented with the DoD rates” and should have been ap­plied to stu­dent al­lowances Aug. 1.

“We don’t have the break­out of ex­act num­bers as to which is which,” said Wor­ley. “But we will not go back and try to re­cover the over­pay­ments once the [in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy] fix is in. And where we have un­der­paid our ben­e­fi­cia­ries, we will make them whole at the time the IT fix goes into ef­fect.”

When that will oc­cur is un­clear. Lawrence, Wor­ley and the IT team sup­port­ing the GI Bill said soft­ware so­lu­tions to com­plex rate cal­cu­la­tions are still be­ing writ­ten for in­stall across sev­eral legacy com­puter sys­tems and then test­ing.

Mean­while, the old, in­ac­cu­rate al­lowance rates must suf­fice, Lawrence said.

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