Sunday, October 26, 2008

VA vows Post-9/11 GI Bill to begin on schedule

VA vows Post-9/11 GI Bill to begin on schedule

By Tom Philpott • October 26, 2008

Post a CommentRecommend Print this page E-mail this article Share
Buzz up! The new Post-9/11 GI Bill, which on average will double the value of education benefits for eligible veterans, will be launched on schedule next August and begin making payments to students and colleges next fall, just as Congress intended, said a senior Department of Veterans Affairs official.

Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, told Military Update on Wednesday that concerns expressed by some lawmakers and veterans' service organizations that the new GI Bill might not start Aug. 1, as the law requires, are unfounded.

However, Wilson said, payments will have to be processed manually, as occurs now with Montgomery GI Bill and other education benefit claims, because an automated processing system won't be ready for two more years.

Only last month VA officials had assured Congress they continued to pursue a strategy to have Post-9/11 GI Bill claims handled by a private contractor who would deploy a modern claim-processing system based on industry-standard technologies and "minimal human intervention."

On Oct. 10, the VA announced that it will have to "rely upon its own work force to set up the information technology programs needed to implement the educational benefits of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill."

The VA news release explained it had not received enough proposals "from qualified private-sector contractors to create an information technology program that implements the new benefit." That left some lawmakers concerned that the department now was in a race to field its own automated processing system or the Post-9/11 benefit might not begin on schedule.

Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, reiterated that concern Wednesday, saying he was frustrated and "a little bit worried we're not going to get this done on time. They spent months telling us the only way to go was to go outside with this contractual thing in the private sector; VA could never do it. Now they say they are going to do what they told us they couldn't do. So I don't know what's going on there, whether there's any leadership, whether there's any accountability."

Filner said the new GI Bill "means so much to so many veterans we've just got to get it done, and (the VA) should devote whatever resources it takes to get it done."

Before abruptly ending its quest for an outside contractor, Filner said, the VA had whittled its choices down to four companies but was feeling a lot of heat from congressional overseers like him. Veterans' service organizations also had criticized use of a private firm to process GI Bill claims despite VA assurances that the department would not contract out "responsibility for actually administering" the new benefit.

Director Wilson said the criticism played no part in the VA decision to shift to its back-up plan for launching the Post-9/11 GI Bill program: using existing processes and just hiring more staff to screen and approve benefits manually. Applications will be processed this way until the VA has an automated system in place, which will take another 24 months, Wilson said. But the Post-9/11 GI Bill, he emphasized, will start on schedule next August.

"I want to emphasize ... we are still going to go to a rules-based automated system. What we have acknowledged is we know we can't do that by August 1. With a vendor, or without a vendor, it is not going to happen. So we have got to pay the benefits with the system that we can modify in-house and the bodies that we can hire, because we're just not willing to gamble benefit payments on this type of initiative," Wilson said.

Currently, a veteran who wants to use education benefits visits the VA GI Bill Web site (, fills out an application -- on line or in hard copy -- and submits it to the VA.

Although most applications arrive electronically, an individual VA processor still must check the information submitted to verify eligibility and approve payment.

That will remain the process when the new GI Bill begins although the new benefit is more complex. Under the Montgomery GI Bill, now two decades old, veterans get a flat-rate monthly benefit regardless of the school they attend. If tuition is low, the veteran pockets the difference. If tuition is higher than MGIB payments, the veteran must pay the difference.

"From our perspective it is pretty simple to administer," Wilson said. "This (new) program has a lot more variables and each payment amount going out in support of a veteran will be unique to that veteran."

Tuition and fees will be paid directly to schools based on what they charge for the courses chosen. A housing allowance based on location and a $1000-a-year stipend for books and supplies will be paid directly to students.

"So instead of having a one-size-fits-all benefit, we are tailoring the benefit payment to the individual's actual cost of education," Wilson said.

The added complexity inspired the VA to accelerate its plan to fully automate the processing of benefits. Officials initially concluded the necessary expertise wasn't available in-house, so they would have to find a contractor. This month that too was deemed too risky for an Aug. 1 start.

Wilson said the staff expansion needed to execute the new benefit using existing practices "won't be anywhere near" as high as the 800 estimate given to Congress earlier. But a revised estimate wasn't available.

Enough staff will be hired and trained, Wilson promised, so the average time to process a GI Bill application will not exceed the current wait of 19 days for MGIB users. With an automated system, he said, the goal will be 10 days and most applications would be processed and approved in a day.

Filner said he wants to have another hearing on the issue in November if Congress returns for a lame-duck session after the election.

To comment, e-mail, write to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120-1111 or visit

I hope the VA is right on this, the nations veterans deserve the benefits and they should be handled right and on time, they have been earned thru service.

Sphere: Related Content

No comments: