By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter
This article has been updated to reflect a new statement from VA ensuring that payments to student veterans harmed in this process will be made retroactively.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced Wednesday that it would be resetting its timeline for implementing changes to housing allowances for student veterans as provided for in the “Forever GI Bill.” The changes—which were originally slated to be completed last July—are now on track to be ready for the 2020 spring semester.
When President Donald Trump signed the Forever GI Bill into law in 2017, it included a new provision that required extensive software changes on the part of VA— a revision in how it divvies out monthly allowances to veterans. While in the past this was calculated based on the location of an institution's main campus, the new bill mandates that it be based on the location in which a student takes a majority of his or her courses. However, the Veteran’s Benefits Administration (VBA) has struggled to implement those changes due to technical challenges.
In yesterday’s announcement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said that “redesigning the way VBA calculates Post 9/11 GI Bill housing rates during a busy academic season was like flying a plane while building it, and that was unfair and frustrating to veterans and taxpayers.” While VA experienced a large backlog in processing students’ benefits in early September, Wednesday’s announcement said it is “back to normal levels.”
During a House subcommittee on veterans affairs hearing earlier this month, frustrated lawmakers pushed VA officials to provide them with a specific date on which the changes would be completed. While officials said during the hearing that they were unable to do so, yesterday’s announcement confirmed that the new system will be ready by Dec. 1, 2019, and that VA will be soliciting bids from contractors for help with developing the software.
Until then, VA wrote that it will pay monthly housing allowances for the current academic year at upcapped Department of Defense Basic Housing Allowance rates and based on where an institution's main campus is located, which will be equal to or higher than students’ current payments. VA also wrote that it will correct underpayments as a result of the technical issues and that students will not be liable for any debt in the case of overpayments.
However, late breaking reports from NBC News on Wednesday night painted a different picture. NBC News reports that on "Wednesday, the department told congressional staffers that it would not reimburse those veterans who were paid less than they were owed." According to NBC, in order to make retroactive payments, VA would have to audit all education claims made prior to Dec. 2019, which it does not intend to do. Rather, VA will implement the change only going forward from Dec. 2019, NBC reported.
Wilkie published a statement Thursday evening that this is not the case.
"To clear up any confusion, I want to make clear that each and every post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiary will be made 100 percent whole—retroactively if need be—for their housing benefits for this academic year based on Forever GI Bill rates, not on post-9/11 GI Bill rates," he wrote.
Earlier this month, NASFAA signed onto a letter sent to VA House committee members, which was spearheaded by the American Council on Education (ACE), to express its concern that the delays in payments associated with the extensive IT changes needed to comply with this provision have caused “anxiety, confusion, and hardship for thousands of veterans pursuing higher education.” Another issue raised was that this new reporting system would cause a heavy burden on schools to track and report each campus on which a student takes a course.
VA wrote in the announcement that to relieve some of this stress on schools, it would alter its definition of a training site as a “campus,” changing it to specify “the physical site of the training is either owned or leased by the school, and the school has ownership or control over the student’s classroom instruction or the faculty conducting the instruction.”
VA added in the announcement that schools should begin submitting enrollment immediately for spring 2019 “to help VBA process them in a timely fashion.”
Publication Date: 11/29/2018
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