Delays and complications in getting Post-9/11 GI Bill payments have led some veterans to wonder if they made a mistake in signing up for the new education program.
At Ohio State University, Jeff Kohler, a former Navy petty officer, is living off his savings while waiting for his benefits to kick in. He got a warning from the university veterans’ adviser that belt-tightening might be in order because living stipends — a key part of the new benefits plan — might not be paid until Nov. 1 because of the backlog of claims.
Kohler, an Iraq war veteran, said he might have made different plans if he had known his rent money was going to be late. “I am living off savings now and a little help from my parents,” he said.
“You got to love the VA,” Kohler said. “I go through hell in Iraq and this is the thanks I get from them.”
Kohler said he left the Navy with more than $8,000 in savings and is down to $4,500. “I’m lucky, as I can survive for a little while. I’m not sure everyone is in the same situation.”
At the Everest College branch in Arlington, Va., former Army Sgt. Stephen Wright said switching to the Post-9/11 GI Bill is proving to be a big mistake.
“I am a 4.0 student about to be kicked out of school for nonpayment and nonattendance because I now have to go to work in order to survive,” said Wright, an Iraq war veteran who is hoping to graduate next year with a business degree.
Last year, Wright attended Everest and made payments on a student loan using the Montgomery GI Bill, which gives cash payments to the student, in contrast to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which makes tuition payments directly to schools.
He switched because the Post-9/11 GI Bill held out the promise of a bigger cash payment for living expenses and textbooks, plus full coverage of tuition and fees. But he has yet to receive a check — and he’s hurting.
The company that gave him the student loan “is not being very patient,” he said, and he has been placed on attendance probation for going to work instead of classes.
“I was promised by VA I would have my money in six weeks, and here we are now on eight weeks,” he said.
Late payments are “putting veterans deeper in debt while the economy is not getting any better,” Wright said. “I am sorry I switched to the new GI Bill.”
At Columbia University in New York City, Marine veteran Jason Lemieux, who did three tours in Iraq, said delays in payments have hurt many veterans who enrolled in school and bought into VA’s promise that all their expenses would be paid.
“One guy couldn’t afford books until he got money from his ex-wife,” said Lemieux, who got out in 2006 as a sergeant. “The school has been very understanding and flexible, telling everyone not to worry about the tuition and fees. And they are setting up an emergency fund for guys who have problems covering the rent.”
At the Anchorage campus of the University of Alaska, former Army Spc. Joya Myers said she may be forced to drop out of school and postpone her goal — getting a bachelor’s degree so she can return to the Army as an officer — because of problems getting her new GI Bill payments.
“I need to consider dropping out and coming back when VA has their ducks in a row,” said Myers, who was depending on the GI Bill and a part-time job at the university’s information technology department to cover her expenses. But the job dried up, and her living stipend and book allowances are late.
“My father helps when he can and usually that keeps a roof over my head, but as far as food, car payment and other bills, I call and plead with them not to put it on my credit report,” Myers said.
“I must keep my credit in good standing, or my goal of becoming an officer will be greatly affected,” she said.
Stories like these are getting attention from veterans groups and from Congress.
Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said this is not what VA promised in hearings about the Aug. 1 implementation of the new benefits program.
“I am extremely disappointed by the lingering delays veterans are experiencing in receiving their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, particularly after being assured by VA they would be able to handle the workload,” Burr said.
Veterans “deserve much better.”
Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, noted that many schools have shown patience and understanding toward students awaiting payments from VA.
“Schools can financially afford to be more accommodating to student veterans,” Davis said. “But landlords, groceries, pharmacies, and other essential cost-of-living expenses don’t stop. VA has to do a better job of expediting claims processing and payments.”
‘We are doing everything we can,’ VA says
Mandatory overtime has been ordered for VA workers processing Post-9/11 GI Bill claims, and more people are assigned to answer a hot line for students and schools.
But with VA taking an average of 34 days to process a claim, thousands of veterans who expected to receive delayed living stipends in early October may have to wait even longer.
VA is wading through a pile of more than 70,000 claims that, on many days, does not get any smaller. The department has been processing about 2,300 to 2,500 claims a day since the Aug. 1 launch of the new veterans benefit — a slow and tedious process, considering more than 277,000 claims have come in.
Not all of those claims are for immediate benefits payments; some are applications to be certified as eligible to use benefits at a later date.
Colleges and universities appear willing to wait while payment problems for current students are worked out, and VA is talking to school officials to reassure them that tuition and fee payments are coming, said Keith Wilson, director of VA’s education service.
However, Wilson acknowledged that waiting can be hard on students. Book allowances, for those who are eligible, will be paid in a check to students issued at the same time that their schools receive payment for tuition and fees.
Living stipends, supposed to be paid on the first of the month, will be paid in batches every few days starting Oct. 1 so students won’t have to wait until Nov. 1, Wilson said.
“We are doing everything we can,” Wilson said.
Veterans groups are urging VA to pull out all stops to get claims paid. Derek Blumke, executive director of Student Veterans of America, said he has “received troubling reports of our members facing the possibility of being disenrolled for late tuition payments, falling behind in class as they cannot afford books, and worst of all, dipping into hard-earned rainy-day savings to support their families.”
Wilson said he was unaware of any GI Bill applicants being barred from school for nonpayment of tuition.
In a statement, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said it’s “absolutely unacceptable” that, by their count, only 11 percent of people who applied for GI bill benefits had received them as of mid-September.
VA officials initially predicted it would take about two weeks to process claims, and reported it was taking 28 days in August. Now, it is up to 35 days, with Wilson warning that processing time may get even longer as the flood of applications for the fall term continues.
“This lengthy and unpredictable waiting period is causing widespread confusion among veterans who are wondering if their check will arrive in 15 or 90 days,” IAVA said.
What you can do
Blumke and Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have practical advice for students who are short of money while waiting on their GI Bill living stipends:
• Many colleges and universities offer interest-free loans to needy students or have created special loans or grants for veterans, Blumke said. If an institution doesn’t have a loan program for veterans, it might be willing to create one, he added.
• Veterans often are eligible for other financial aid programs, such as Pell Grants. “In my experience, you can get money within about two weeks,” Campbell said. An application form is available online. The financial aid offices at most schools also can help with a Pell Grant application.
Pell Grants, which do not have to be repaid, are based on income and family size. Most student veterans with income of less than $60,000 a year would qualify for some help, and those making $30,000 or less — the value of GI Bill benefits doesn’t count — could receive about $5,000 in aid.