By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter
Tens of thousands of student veterans and their family members are left in a state of uncertainty, as the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) deals with an unusually large backlog in processing their benefit claims under the GI Bill, which resulted from a technical glitch veterans organizations are calling “an organizational and customer service failure at the highest level.”
As of the end of September, more than 220,000 veterans and family members were awaiting decisions on their benefit claims, military.com reported last week. Claims data from the VA show that the 226,586 pending claims are a decrease of 8.8 percent, or 21,810 claims, from the previous week. But at this time last year, the VA had 146, 971 pending education benefits claims, 54 percent lower than the current backlog.
The issue stems from problems implementing a provision in the Forever GI Bill that required the VA’s Office of Information and Technology to make “significant modifications” to its existing IT infrastructure, according to a letter sent by 15 military and veterans service organizations. Under the bill, the VA was required to make adjustments to the Monthly Housing Allowances (MHA) students receive, basing the amount paid on the campus a student attends, rather than the main campus.
In the letter, the military and veterans service organizations said the technical failure in updating the VA’s IT systems has resulted in inaccurate payments sent to students and schools.
“These incorrect payments are asking veterans, their families, and schools to bear the burden of VA’s problems,” the letter said. “The consequences of this burden on students and higher education institutions lead to heavy financial burdens. Institutions of higher learning rely on timely and accurate payments from VA to cover the cost of tuition for students. Furthermore, students rely on MHA to pay for their living expenses such as rent, utilities, and food.”
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee last month that the agency has implemented 28 of the 34 provisions for changes in the Forever GI Bill, and that 22 of those provisions would require significant changes to the agency’s IT systems. To that end, he said, the VA hired 200 temporary employees to assist with the increased workload.
He added that testing is “ongoing” for solutions in implementing the changes to monthly housing allowances, saying that pending “the deployment of a solution, veterans and schools will continue to receive GI Bill benefit payments as normal.”
The veterans groups expressed concern about additional upcoming changes that would require IT upgrades, and urged the agency to more proactively prepare for the next updates. The organizations also took issue with the VA’s apparent lack of communication surrounding the issue, noting that students did not receive any notification until several weeks into the current semester.
“They have left students and schools confused, with improper payments, and absent a clearly articulated timeline for when these issues will be fixed,” the organizations wrote. “We also acknowledge it is imperative VA receive the necessary resources to have an effective IT system that supports all of its constituents; we encourage Congress to work quickly to meet those needs. Students, schools, and taxpayers need assurances and answers to how this will be resolved and prevented in the future. We look forward to continuing working together with VA to resolve these issues.”
Publication Date: 10/9/2018
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