In a congressional hearing on Feb. 14, Student Veterans of America (SVA) Executive Director Michael Dakduk said that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) delays in processing Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits claims continue to plague student veterans, along with the fact that the status of their initial claims — whereby certificates of eligibility for government-provided tuition and other payments are issued — cannot be readily assessed. In the past, this problem has been reported to sometimes cause severe economic and personal hardship for student veterans and administrative difficulties for the schools they attend.
Dakduk said in testimony presented to members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee that his organization "has concerns with the lack of real-time information currently being provided to student veterans. Currently, student veterans are only able to track the status of their claims by calling the GI Bill hotline or interfacing with their school certifying official.
"The GI Bill hotline has elongated wait times and during periods of heavy call traffic the automated system instructs student veterans to call back at a later time. This process is highly inefficient and extremely frustrating to veterans."
Dakduk spoke about VA's Long Term Solution (LTS) automation system that's being used to reduce delays in claims processing. Currently, VA automation is primarily restricted to the processing of "supplemental" claims – after certificates of eligibility are issued. Dakduk said it is important that the system encompass the initial claims filing process as well.
"The LTS should include a single portal where student veterans can access and view in real-time the status of their GI Bill claims," Dakduk said. "By providing instantaneous information, student veterans can make well-informed life decisions based on the timely, or untimely, processing of their GI Bill benefit. We recommend the real-time tracking of GI Bill claims be housed in eBenefits, the current single portal system used for all VA benefits and claims."
Dakduk's testimony noted the valuable role of on-campus school certifying officials (SCOs) in informing student veterans of their claims status but said, "...this is not a long term solution. While most SCOs go above and beyond the responsibilities of their position to provide a student with an appropriate answer, they are clearly overburdened. We (SVA) recommend(s) that SCOs be provided the appropriate real-time access to the status of GI Bill claims utilizing 21st century web-based technology." He likened such systems to those employed currently by packaged shipping companies, such as FedEx, UPS and USPS.
Roger Baker, VA's assistant secretary for Information and Technology, defended his agency by pointing to dramatically shortened processing times – but only with regard to supplemental claims.
"We can report to the subcommittee and our nation's veterans that VA is currently processing supplemental claims for Post-9/11 educational assistance in an average of seven days, a remarkable achievement given that we are in the peak enrollment period for the spring term," Baker said. "For comparison purposes, on this date in 2011, it took 19 days to process supplemental claims, in 2012, it took 14 days. Veterans are receiving the payments they are due in a timely manner..."
Baker also talked about VA's triumphs in deploying the automation system. "LTS has been a significant success from an IT implementation perspective," Baker said. "Because of the volume of education claims and the limitations of the short-term solution, it was critical to VA, and to veterans, that this system be delivered on time and that it work correctly when delivered. Our people, processes, contractors and technology met that challenge."
Baker noted that the six-phase LTS rollout has succeeded thus far, even though two additional phases had to be added to meet the new requirements of a 2010 law that "expanded Post-9/11 GI Bill in many ways to include non-college degree programs, modified the statutory tuition and fee payment provisions to allow VA to pay all in-state public school costs, and created a national cap for training pursued at a private institution."
The American Legion, author of the original GI Bill and contributor to its successors, has been collaborating with SVA for several years to address this and other student veteran issues. On Feb. 24, the Legion will conduct a Veterans Education Symposium as part of its annual Washington Conference.