Lawmakers share blame for delay

By Tom Philpott: CNJ columnist

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki got a bipartisan hug from the House Veterans Affairs Committee last week as lawmakers accepted his plan to fix Post-9/11 GI Bill payment delays, and blamed their own rush to enact the complex education benefit last year for some of the challenges VA now faces.

Many veterans using new GI Bill benefits for fall classes had not received their monthly living allowance or lump sum book stipend by early October. In response, Shinseki authorized emergency payments of up to $3,000, supplied through VA’s 57 regional offices or by registering for the payment online. Within two days of the Oct. 2 start of emergency payments, 25,000 students either had received checks or expected them soon by mail.

A number of “complications” caused the payment delays, Shinseki explained. One factor was VA officials underestimated the number of claim processors they needed by the Aug. 3 start date. Early estimates were based on processing time under the Montgomery GI Bill program, he said.

But processing MGIB payments involves two to three steps and takes an average of 15 minutes versus an hour or more, and nine steps, to process a Post-9/11 GI Bill application, Shinseki explained. Unlike MGIB benefits, Post-9/11 payments vary by school location and other unique factors.

Though processors get an assist from computers, they basically must review applications manually. By mid-November, Shinseki said, an upgrade to their information technology tool should speed the process enough to clear the current backlog and avoid payment delays in the spring semester.

A third factor is that some colleges have been slow in sending to the VA certificates of enrollment for students using the GI Bill. VA needs the certificates before reimbursing schools for tuition and fees or paying living allowances and book stipends directly to students.

Shinseki said he liked an idea, raised by Rep. Steve Buyer of Indiana, ranking Republican on the committee, to modify the law so that future payments to students are handled separately from school reimbursements.

“This week alone we received 3,600 certificates of enrollment from schools that are working through the process” for fall classes, he said.

Committee leaders exchanged congratulations with Shinseki on working together on a bill the president will sign this month that allows Congress, starting next year, to fund VA health care budgets a year in advance, thus ending annual funding delays for VA facilities tied to politics.