If you have had trouble getting your question about GI Bill benefits answered when you call the Veterans Affairs Department’s education benefits call center, you are not alone.
VA officials acknowledged almost 90 percent of calls to the Muskogee, Okla., center never connected between October and December. They either got a busy signal or a message that the call could not be completed.
For those who did get through, about 30 percent of the calls were terminated before their question was answered, either because the caller hung up or was disconnected.
Some of the missed calls were from the same person trying again and again to get through, according to VA sources. They base that possibility on statistics showing that there were 1.1 million attempted calls in December but only about 145,000 calls that ended up connecting with people at the call center.
High call volume — about 3.5 million attempted calls from October to December — is largely to blame for the missed calls, but a troubled phone system and staffing decisions also were factors.
VA spokeswoman Katie Roberts said a decision to close the call center on Thursdays and Fridays to divert employees to process claims is part of the reason for missed calls. That move came after officials decided that processing a backlog of claims was the highest priority, she said.
The call center remains closed two days a week while VA focuses on processing claims for the spring term, hoping to avoid a repeat of benefits delays that plagued the Post-9/11 GI Bill in its first semester. However, officials hope that blocked and lost calls will decrease simply because the total volume of calls is expected to be less as students and schools become more experienced with the new benefit, and because VA will improve its performance in quickly processing benefits and reducing questions about the status of claims.
“We anticipate fewer calls coming into the education call center because fewer veterans will have questions about their claims,” Roberts said. “With fewer claims, we will be able to put education call center employees presently being used to process education claims back on the phones during Thursday and Friday.”
VA is making progress on processing claims, she said. Last fall, the VA was able to process about 2,000 claims a day. That is up to 7,000 claims a day now, she said.
Problems with the call center were raised Thursday by Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., chairwoman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s economy opportunity panel, who urged VA officials to do something about the problem.
Herseth Sandlin, whose panel has jurisdiction over the GI Bill, questioned the closure of the call center for two days each week.
“While we understand the value of using call center staff to process education claims, VA can have the call center open five days per week by dispersing the same work hours throughout the week,” she said.
Another issue is the telephone system itself, she said. When congressional staffers visited the call center, they were told equipment problems “create dropped calls and require constant maintenance,” Herseth Sandlin said.
In a statement, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said they expect better from VA.
“It is ridiculous that veterans aren’t able to get the answers they need,” the statement says.
“IAVA continues to receive countless phone calls and emails from our members every week detailing problems accessing VA’s GI Bill hotline. We’re very concerned about the number of blocked calls, and the decision by VA to close the hotline on Thursdays and Fridays despite an existing number of unanswered calls.”
VA has not made any secret of the reduced hours for the call center hours, which is open Monday through Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., Central Standard Time, VA officials said.
People with questions also can try to send an electronic query online. The site accesses a database of answers to frequently asked questions and also allows specific questions to be asked.
Limited hours on the days when the call center is open have drawn complaints from students in different time zones, especially on the West Coast.
Rep. John Boozman of Arkansas, ranking Republican on the economic opportunity panel, said the hours also prevent students living outside the U.S. from having a reasonable opportunity to get help. He suggested that VA impose a staggered work schedule so the call center is open for more hours.