WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged technical issues are causing 340,000 student veterans to receive incorrect housing stipends to begin the new school year, but now lawmakers and advocates contend the problem is bigger -- many veterans are not receiving the payments at all.
Veterans going to school using the GI Bill were supposed to receive their second housing payment for the semester on Oct. 1. In the days since, veterans have been contacting the VA, veterans groups, their lawmakers and schools to question them about their missing money. Some of them haven't received any money, and others received amounts far less than what they're owed.
Stars and Stripes heard from 14 veterans in 14 states who received either the wrong amount or no housing allowance at all. Some of them called the VA and waited on hold until they gave up, and others reached out to their elected representatives. Six mentioned the lack of payment affected their ability to pay their rent or other bills.
Leo Cheng, a Navy veteran who attends Columbia University in New York City, hadn't been paid as of Friday, and he knows of other veterans at the school who are in the same situation.
"New York is an extremely expensive city to live in, so the VA falling behind by even a month for our [housing allowance] payments can be very stressful for most to try and float expenses out of our savings," Cheng wrote in an email. "Nearly all of us here do not live in the dorms, we don't get any leeway for not paying rent on time."
The VA said last month about 340,000 veterans would get incorrect housing payments because of IT issues.
Last year, Congress approved the Forever GI Bill, which included numerous changes to veterans' education benefits. One change calls for calculating veterans' housing allowances based on the ZIP codes of the campus where they attend classes, rather than defaulting to the main campuses.
When the VA went to make the change, its IT systems failed, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told senators at a Sept. 27 hearing.
"We received instructions from Congress, and those instructions, they attempted to implement them on a 50-year-old computer system," Wilkie said at the time. "Even something as simple as changing the percentages broke the system."
It's uncertain exactly when the problem will be fixed. In a letter to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs last month, VA Undersecretary of Benefits Paul Lawrence wrote he expected the agency to develop its software by the end of September, followed by "several weeks of testing."
VA officials have repeatedly said the problem caused only a small difference -- about 1 percent -- in veterans' housing allowances. Veterans are receiving allowances based on 2017 rates that don't account for cost-of-living increases in 2018, they said.
However, some veterans are citing more drastic problems.
Navy veteran Michael Krause, who attends Kansas State Polytechnic, said his payment was off by about $700.
"I realize these things are hard to solve, but it's frustrating when students are relying on this money to pay for housing," Krause wrote in a message. "My landlord is willing to work with me a little, luckily. But others might not be so lucky."
Air Force veteran Bryce Remkes said his wife Catherine, who is using his GI Bill benefits for a master's program at Georgia State University, has received "random amounts." Nick Sorenson, an Army veteran attending Utah Valley University, said he received only a partial payment. Army veteran Jay Kirell, who attends Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, received a payment that was about $200 short.
At Colorado State University, veterans flooded into the school's veteran services office last month to complain of incorrect payments, said Marc Barker, director of the office. Barker said Friday that he has more recently seen a large number of veterans who haven't received their payments at all. He added the situation was "very challenging."
Navy veteran Robert Epps lives in Washington state and is working toward an electrical engineering degree through American Public University. The monthly housing allowance "makes it possible to make ends meet and take care of my wife and two children," he said. He and his wife have a third child on the way.
Epps wrote Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., because he could not reach anyone at the VA about the lack of payment.
"Suffice it to say, this is not happening at a good time for my family," Epps wrote Murray. "What savings we did have are now gone."
When Army veteran William Miller, a student at Loyola University in New Orleans, didn't receive his housing payment Oct. 1, he called the offices of his elected representatives in the House and Senate, as well as Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards. He then applied for financial help from the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which provides grants for veterans facing unexpected financial difficulties.
VFW spokesman Joe Davis said the organization is "evaluating the magnitude of the problem and seeing how we may be able to assist some veterans."
Representatives from schools nationwide are contacting the nonprofit Student Veterans of America, which has chapters at colleges across the country. On Friday, SVA heard from Middle Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University, both of which reported student veterans at their schools were experiencing "significant delays" in payments.
There are 550 students at East Tennessee State who use the GI Bill, 30 of whom told Antonio Banchs, the school's director of veterans affairs, that they haven't received their housing allowances.
Banchs said the VA is only sharing "bits and pieces" of information.
"I belong to a message board that is nationwide, and we've been communicating with each other for months now, asking each other, 'Are you seeing this problem,'" Banchs said. "As it turns out, yes, everyone is experiencing this problem. Something is happening, and I guess the worst part about it is the VA is not talking to us. My students come to us for help, and I don't know what to tell them."
A growing workload
The VA conceded in a statement Friday that processing times for veterans' education benefits are longer than normal because of the IT issues related to the Forever GI Bill.
The VA brought on 202 more employees to help process the claims and is requiring employees to work overtime, said VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour. He said the VA is now working through 16,000 claims daily.
In a letter dated Sept. 28, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., brought up the issue to the VA. Roe is the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
Roe cited the workload of veterans' claims for education benefits, which was 248,396 claims as of Sept. 21. During the same week in 2017, the workload was nearly 85,000 fewer, at 163,771.
By Sept. 29, the workload had decreased to 226,568, though it's still higher than the same week last year, when the VA was working on 146,971 claims for education benefits. Cashour said the workload was about 183,000 as of Friday.
"I continue to be concerned about the current workload of education claims pending at VA regional processing offices," Roe wrote. "This increased workload is likely to result in processing delays for living stipend payments and other benefits for students."
In a statement Friday, Roe said, "Veterans not getting their living stipends creates an incredible hardship." He said the issue is "unacceptable" and "must be urgently addressed."
Cashour said the VA hasn't been able to calculate how many student veterans have yet to receive their housing allowances.
SVA is encouraging veterans experiencing problems to contact the VA's GI Bill hotline at 855-948-5273. Cashour said veterans "experiencing a genuine hardship" should call the VA customer service number, 888-442-4551.