Facing a rush of last-minute claims, the Department of Veterans Affairs has cut housing checks to tens of thousands of veterans returning to college under the newly expanded GI Bill but officials acknowledge several thousand may get their money later than expected.
With the academic year recently under way, Tuesday was the first day many veterans were due their first monthly housing stipends, which range from under $1,000 to upward of $2,500 depending on factors including location.
Ryan Gallucci of the advocacy group AMVETS said Tuesday he was pleased with the effort, considering the complexity of calculating awards and administering the new benefit.
About two-thirds of the 67,000 remaining unprocessed claims were submitted only in the last 30 days. Claims are taking on average 28 days to be processed, and beneficiaries had been told to get them in at least a month ahead.
However, that still leaves about 20,000 unprocessed claims that are more than 30 days old. Veterans groups said they’ll continue to monitor the backlog and hold the department to its promise to be caught up by next month.
Keith Wilson, the department’s education service director, said much of the paperwork backlog may be from veterans simply filing to determine eligibility and not necessarily due housing checks. Any who are will get the full amount due by the Oct. 1 check period.
"That’s not to say that things are perfect now, and not to say we’re not being aggressive at trying to make it better," Wilson said. "We’re going to continue to do yeoman’s work in making this better, but taking into account how far we’ve come we are pleased."
Congress passed the Post 9/11 GI Bill last year, offering veterans the most significant expansion of educational benefits since the original GI Bill in 1944. The new benefits will exist alongside other continuing programs like the Montgomery GI Bill. Altogether, the VA expects nearly half a million veterans to participate in the coming year.
Overall, the department has received 236,000 claims related to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and has completed action on 169,000.
Getting the program up and running was a colossal bureaucratic undertaking. Claims under the new bill are more complicated than under the old, in part because the government is now essentially cutting three separate checks: one to colleges for tuition and fees, and two directly to veterans, one for housing and the other for textbooks and supplies.
Also, it’s a multistage process, with the department certifying eligibility but colleges also required to send in paperwork to certify enrollment.
The University of South Florida in Tampa, with about 1,000 veterans enrolled, is home to a new pilot program placing a VA counselor on campus to help students navigate the GI Bill and other benefits.
At a meeting there Monday with VA officials, Navy veteran Nate Dodge complained he’d applied online and waited six weeks. When he called to follow up, he was told his application had been lost because of the high volume coming in.
Dodge, who is looking to tap into new GI Bill benefits to continue his engineering studies, said he resubmitted his application at least three times, via fax and regular mail. He is still waiting to receive benefits.
"A lot of veterans are really counting on this money to make it through," he said. VA officials at the meeting pledged to look into the matter.
Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel of the group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the department initially acted too slowly setting up the new system, but was doing its best to catch up.
"The problems were a year ago," he said. "They’re doing what they can now."
The delays some veterans will face underscore the need to simplify the new GI Bill before next year, he said, noting claims must be processed by hand and it can take up to two hours to determine benefits.