In Congressional hearings this week the VA has said it is facing problems implementing some parts of the Harry J Colmery GI Bill, better known as the "Forever GI Bill".
The law, signed in August removes the 15 year time limitation that newer veterans have to use their GI Bill. It also gives back GI Bill entitlement to some veterans who were in schools that closed mid-term, creates a new program for STEM students, makes more guard and reserve members eligible for benefits, and more.
In Congressional testimony VA officials testified that even though the removal of the 15 year time limit affects veterans who started using their GI Bill after Jan. 1, 2013 the VA was still sending out letters telling those veterans they only had 15 years from their discharge to use the GI Bill. VA was also sending out "Certificates of Eligibility" to new applicants which also included the 15 year time limit.
When asked by house subcommittee members what the VA was doing to fix this, officials replied that that VA was sending up a follow-up letter explaining that the first letter was in error, much to Congressional members disbelief and chagrin. One representative asked why VA didn't just take a Sharpie and line out the incorrect information instead of confusing veterans with conflicting communications, another stated that this is why people have no faith in government.
VA said that the letters were computer generated by their "long term solution" which is the name they have given the computer system that processes most GI Bill payments, and that they wouldn't be able to update the computer code to fix this error until March of next year at the earliest.
Computer Systems Lacking
Ironically, when VA contracted to create the long term solution it was developed with a system known as "agile technology" which Wikipedia says "encourages rapid and flexible response to change".
During the testimony VA officials stated again and again how they were facing an uphill battle to modify existing computer systems to handle the legislative changes, in fact one official even stated that VA was still relying on its 51 year old mainframe computer system to process many of its education claims.
During this week's hearing VA officials said they estimated that upgrading their IT systems to handle the changes in the new law would top $70 million, even though they originally estimated it would be around $30 million to make the changes.
Hiring Temporary Workers
VA officials testified they were in the process of hiring 200 temporary workers to manually process claims until they can get their software changes implemented.
VA is apparently doing this in an attempt to avoid encountering problems like those that occurred back when the Post-9/11 GI Bill began in 2009. At that time, the VA got so backlogged in making payments they were forced to issue emergency checks of up to $3,000 to veterans who had waited months for their GI Bill payments.
Expand outreach efforts
Another section of the new law gives some veterans their GI Bill back if it was used at a school that either closed or had their VA approval withdrawn. The new regulation gives back any GI Bill that was used to take classes that resulted in no academic credit due to no fault of the veteran. This part of the law is retroactive to 2015 and affects over 8,000 veterans.
The VA has reached out to veterans eligible for this benefit, but only about 250 of the affected veterans have applied for the restoration of their GI Bill. Committee members voiced their concerns that VA wasn't doing enough to get the word out to eligible veterans, and suggested that VA should partner with Veterans Service Organizations to expand their outreach.