VA: Emergency GI Bill payments succeed

In an Oct. 15 review of how the Post-9/11 GI Bill was implemented, a congressional subcommittee lauded VA for trying to rectify the backlog of education benefit claims, but also criticized it for not planning ahead more carefully.

Rep. Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, D-S.D., who chairs the House Economic Opportunity Subcommittee, praised VA for issuing emergency payments to student veterans (a reported 41,000 were mailed in the first week) but also said VA should have planned better.

“Unfortunately, the past few weeks have shed some light on the shortcomings facing the VA and how it must improve the way it processes education claims,” Herseth-Sandlin said. “I applaud the actions taken by the VA to address the current backlogs in distribution of education benefits. While this is commendable, more forethought should have been given to the emergency check solution to address any potential problems.”

VA received about 937,000 claims this summer from veterans hoping to use the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which went into effect Aug. 1. The organization didn’t have the manpower to process the initial wave of applicants, leaving a large number of veterans without benefit checks at the start of the fall semester. To resolve the situation, VA began offering emergency aid checks Oct. 2 to those who needed them.

Officials report that 794,000 claims have been processed, and about $120 million was handed out in the relief effort. Emergency payments issued will be recouped from future benefit payments to student veterans.

Office of Education Services Director Keith Wilson said VA is close to rectifying the situation, pointing out that the organization had a high hurdle to overcome, with the number of education benefit claims for this year up by 180,000.

“The net increase in enrolled students is approximately 70,000,” Wilson said. “In fiscal year 2008, the average time to process all education claims was at a five-year low. We averaged 19 days for original claims and 10 days for enrollment certifications.”

Herseth-Sandlin recommended that VA explain to veterans the need to submit benefit applications early, and the importance of applying for other federal aid such as Pell grants and work-study programs. She also told VA that it needs to know when veterans intend to use their benefits, so that claims can be processed more efficiently.