The Obama administration, which made helping veterans a front-burner issue, botched the debut of the new post-9/11 G.I. bill, leaving thousands of war veterans without tuition aid for months at a time.
The system put in place by the Veterans Administration for the beginning of classes last August could not keep up with applications, even though Congress in 2008 gave the VA a year to get ready.
As a result, vets waited months to receive housing and book allowances, forcing them to miss rent and mortgage payments. And colleges did not receive direct tuition payments, causing them to freeze some veterans’ accounts so they could not sign up for the spring semester.
The crisis reached the point where the VA simply gave a blanket payment of $3,000 to every student. It is now trying to recover the money from vets who had received tuition aid and were not entitled to extra money.
The American Legion, the nation’s largest vets group, has received hundreds of complaints each month over non-payment. The Legion makes grants to hardpressed vets and their families.
"The VA was not really ready," Bob Madden, assistant director of economics at the Legion, told Human Events. "They had made it known they weren’t necessarily ready for the actual implementation of it. So they did the best they could."
The process starts this way for vets wanting to attend college on the G.I. bill, as ex-service members have done since the end of World War II.
First, they apply for a certificate of eligibility from the VA. The student then provides the certificate to the college, which notifies the VA the vet is in school taking classes. At that point, the VA is supposed to pay the institution, in an amount up to each state’s highest in-state tuition.
Vets then are to start receiving a housing allowance, that can go as high as $2,000 per month base on location, and $1,000 annually for books, in two payments.
Madden said it was simply taking the VA too long process each claim.
"There was a huge backlog that ensued," he said. "Really what happened was most affected veterans were not getting their housing allowance or their book stipend."
Computer systems were no integrated. There was not enough employees to do the paperwork.
Vets went to the Legion. "I’m going to get evicted. I can’t pay my mortgage. I’ve been in school three months and I haven’t received a housing allowance yet," said Madden, recalling the complaints.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the VA decided to only field students phone calls three days a week, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It recently relented and added Thursday and Friday.
The VA is now eating into the backlog. Last month, of about 181,000 vets in college under the G.I bill, about 20,000 still lacked spring semester payment. As of last week, it was down to about 10,000, Madden said.
"Obviously, there were a few bumps in the road. Unfortunately the veterans had to pay the price for that and were kind of put out for that. But eventually, they are rectifying the situation."
Congress began received the same type of complaints from veterans-students last year. One of the first events in the House this year was a hearing before the House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on economic opportunity.
"I’m sure my colleagues will agree that the current delays in processing education claims are simply unacceptable," said subcommittee chairwoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, South Dakota Democrat. "A number of my colleagues not on this committee have spoken to me directly or written to me, documenting experiences student veterans that they represent, who have suffered from the consequences of the delays in processing these claims."
The VA is admitting it did veterans wrong.
"As we’re all aware, many veterans enrolled in schools during the fall of 2009 encountered unacceptable delays with respect to their receipt of their benefits," said Roger Baker, assistant VA secretary for information and technology. "I believe it’s important to convey, on behalf of Secretary [Eric] Shinseki and every member of the V.A. team, our apologies for those delays and our understanding of the impact, that the impacts of those delays on veterans are unacceptable.
By September, the VA is supposed to have one information technology system in place to handle claims.
It announced the new system Feb. 23 in a press release that did not mention problems with kicking off the post-911 G.I. bill
“We will end projects that don’t work, streamline those that do, and focus on the responsibility we have for achieving maximum value for our Veterans,” said Shinseki.