Fix to GI Bill Screwups Won't Happen Before Spring, VA Says

Computers in a classroom.

VA officials Thursday could not say when the IT system failures delaying, stopping or fouling up GI Bill housing payments to at least 73,000 student veterans will be fixed, said it likely won't happen before the next spring semester.

"We may not have the software ready for the spring semester," said John Lawrence, the undersecretary at the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).

The VA, he said, is working on "fallbacks" for the likelihood that problems will continue even past that point.

At a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Lawrence repeatedly declined to estimate when the systems will be functioning correctly.

"It was wrong to give you a date," when the VA said earlier the summer that the system would be up in August, Lawrence said. "I will not give you a date [now]."

He also said he didn't know yet how much it would cost to come up with a fix.

Based on testimony, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said "we have no earthly idea" when veterans can expect the system will be functioning.

The hearing was occasionally testy as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle pressed Lawrence and other VA officials for numbers on how many veterans were going without payments, and when they would be made whole.

The officials often gave vague answers, but Lawrence stressed that "we have no confirmed cases of persons being evicted" because of the VA's failure to make the payment.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert M. Worley II, the director of education services at the VBA, said "we're all frustrated that we don't have a solution in place," but added that no cases as yet have come to his attention of veterans who have been unable to enroll because of the system failures.

Under questioning from Rep. Beto O'Rourke, R-Texas, Worley said that the cases of about 73,000 student veterans were in the VA's "work queue."

Worley said that about 1,000 veterans had been waiting more than 60 days for housing allowance payments that could exceed $2,000 per month. He said about 11,000 had been waiting for at least 30 days.

Worley appeared to be first in line to take the fall for the VA's failures. He is slated to be removed as director of education services and is being re-assigned within the VBA, NBC News said in a report shortly before the hearing began.

Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, the subcommittee chairman, said that "veterans are paying the price" for the VA's short-term fixes that resulted in "putting bandaids on these problems for years." He predicted that "we have not seen the worst of the payment delays."

Through two rounds of questioning and a postscript, Arrington pressed Lawrence for an estimate -- even a vague one -- on when a solution might be in place. Lawrence finally agreed to get back to the Committee with an estimate eventually, but gave no guarantees on when he would do it.

The VA officials were equally vague on the costs of the IT programs for the housing allowances, but they said that Booz Allen Hamilton, the management and information technology firm, had been paid $1.2 million to develop the software.

Richard Crowe, a senior vice president at the firm, said the software task was made more difficult by the shifting requirements of the VA. The department at first wanted to install a half-percent increase in the housing allowance but then scrapped that idea and went back to the 2017 payment schedules.

The VA also wanted payments to be made according to the zip code of the school -- but not just the main campus. Payments were to be adjusted by the zip code of wherever the student was actually taking the courses.

The result was overloads and breakdowns, Crowe said.

"It's our job to ensure the code produces the desire result," but the "heavy volume of changes" wanted by the VA made the solution more complex, Crowe said. "As a result, we rewrote 60 percent of the code."

"These workarounds are time consuming," he added, and Booz Allen also had to contend with meshing new technology with the VA's older systems.

"We were building something new on top of something very old," he said.

In his testimony, Lawrence said that the installation of the new software "has not gone as planned. We are continuing to work on getting this right."

In addition, "We are working diligently to minimize these delays affecting GI Bill students," Lawrence said. "We're frustrated that we don't have a solution in place."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com.

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