GI Bill and VA Woes- A Response to "Left Face"

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20090310_094308_NRS.dng Pointing fingers doesn’t make the flow of checks to those comrades happen any faster... A recent post on Left Face discusses the delay in payments to the veterans attending college under the Post 9/11 GI Bill and The American Legion’s role as the administration of the Post 9/11 GI Bill was being formulated. That discussion is incomplete as regards the role of The American Legion. As National Commander during the period being discussed, I am authoring this post in an attempt to clarify that role. In August 2008, The American Legion received reliable information that the Veterans Benefits Administration intended to contract with an outside company for the entire administration of the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Acting on that information, the delegates to the National Convention passed a resolution expressing the Legion’s concern and disapproval of that proposed action. Having been elected National Commander at that convention, it then became my duty to have that policy statement implemented. Beginning the second week in September, a series of individual meetings were held with members of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees as well as testimony before a joint session of those two committees. At no time during that week was information available that indicated the VA desired merely to outsource creation of a software package to be operated in-house to administer the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Rumors to that effect began to circulate at the end of the week, but no hard information was made available. The Legion’s opposition at that time was to an outside company administering the Post 9/11 GI Bill. If we had known then what we know now about the progress of the program and the coming delays in payments, would our position have been different? I don’t think so. Our position was based on the belief that the US government through the Veterans Benefit Administration should operate and administer programs benefiting veterans, not a private company. The vehement opposition referred to was based on that principle, not opposing purchase of a software package from a private company, but opposing administration of the program by any private company. I also don’t recall the VA Secretary being overwhelmed by private companies wanting to take on this extremely complex challenge. Possibly as a result of the Legion’s opposition, the VA Secretary made the decision that the administration and all work on the Post 9/11 GI Bill would be accomplished in-house. As pointed out by Tucker as a result of that decision the VA “went back to manually processing of applications and checks with their grossly undermanned (and underfunded) staff.” If the VA felt at the beginning of the process that a software system was needed, it is difficult to understand why they didn’t continue down that road themselves. We believed then and I believe now that the Veterans Benefits Administration had the knowledge and talent to create the needed software program. The VA already has the knowledge and expertise to administer a completely electronic medical record in Veterans Health Administration, a record that is available at any VA hospital visited by the veteran. The National Cemetery Administration also operates a data base used to provide earned death benefits (flag, certificate, and headstone) in a timely manner. There are also other GI Bill educational benefits awarded by the Veterans Benefits Administration on a daily basis and in a timely manner. It seems that if they are capable of maintaining databases of that size, with a common population and complexity, they certainly have the personnel and capability of maintaining a database for the implementation of the Post 9/11 GI Bill. However, with every new change, there is somewhat of a learning curve. This is not the first time for VA to be responsible for implementing a new educational benefit package. The original GI Bill of Rights, the Korean GI Bill, the Vietnam GI Bill were all implemented without the benefit of software, but VA was up to the task. Granted, this new GI Bill is somewhat more complicated because of the different components, but still doable. VA must deal with colleges and universities (both public and private); with the Department of Defense; and with individual veterans and their dependents. My confidence in VA’s ability to meet this challenge remains steadfast. A second need for the software for the Post 9/11 GI Bill was the national networking capability to allow veterans to submit their application online. Here again the VA has the example of the My HealtheVet network to build from. Any veteran with computer access can use that system to enter data to create a personal health record, very similar to the kind of data that would be needed for application for the Post 9/11 GI Bill. It would seem that the knowledge and expertise gained from that application would have been more than sufficient for this purpose. What stood in the way of bringing together that knowledge and expertise to create this software? One speculation is the division of labor that still remains in the VA where each section operates and maintains their own software and networks. That has been recognized as a problem for some time with pressure being applied both by Congress and the veterans’ community to unify those separate groups. If that unification had been achieved, movement of the appropriate personnel to this type of project could be accomplished much more effectively. Having those boundaries and barrier walls still in place, however, makes assembling this kind of team extremely difficult. One last point needs to be made regarding creation of this software outside the VA. Tucker makes the statement that if an outside company had done the work “This program would have been ready by the summer of this year.” Having some 30 years experience working in the realm of government, the process of finding the company, negotiating the capabilities and contract, overseeing the work and training up on the product and doing all this for a completely new product and to a hard deadline as a very rare occurrence with a very low success rate. Examples abound of cost overruns and missed deadlines in government acquisition. It is simplistic to believe nothing of that sort would have happened here. There is plenty of blame to go around, some of which must belong to the Congress for the deadline they set for implementation of the program. If Tucker is right about the complexity and I believe that is the case, then Congress was somewhat shortsighted in setting an implementation with that short a timespan. We know that the legislation does not contain some very important benefits, housing allowance for distance learning and apprenticeship training to name two, due to the quick movement of the legislation through Congress. We all, including Congress, wanted the benefit implemented as quickly as possible. Maybe our desire to get it started caused the decision to try to get things underway too quickly. How can we help at this point? There is little that the veterans’ community and concerned citizens can do to reduce the delay other than continue to express our concern. The American Legion as well as other VSOs created information materials ( in the case of the Legion) to help veterans determine their eligibility and benefit level. We can all work to make sure there are coordinators on each campus and that the schools are fulfilling their responsibilities in a timely manner. Finally we can all be frustrated that so many of our comrades are undergoing this frustration and difficulty, but pointing fingers doesn’t make the flow of checks to those comrades happen any faster.
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Left Face, about face. You're headed in the wrong direction. Hindsight is 20/20, but in this case there is no guarantee Plan B would have been any better. Wonder how many veterans have jobs due to Plan A and if Plan B would have been outsourced to overseas.

This new GI Bill has more moving parts than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs! There are so many potential "choke points" that delays may very well be outside of VA's control. Everything rests to time action of others besides VA. Veterans have a role, colleges have a role, DoD has a role and VA role is dependent on getting timely input from the other cast of characters.

As someone who used the Vietnam GI Bill, I can tell you that my check was always at least a month behind. VA did nothing until the school acknowledged that I was a full-time or part-time student. In most cases, they waited until the official "last day to drop classes" before notifying VA. Once I established a track record as a full-time student, the problem seemed to vanish.

If you took a "break" for the summer, you had better hold on to the last VA check, because the process started anew at the beginning of the next semester. This was way before "software" and I'm sure they were swamped back then as well.

Once the ball gets rolling, the learning curve for everyone will flatten out. Bottom line, "the check is in the mail" and what a check it will be. Just ask those fellow veterans not eligible to participate in the new GI Bill. They will tell you, "Cheer up -- things could be worse!"

Left Face, every GI Bill since 1944 had implementation challenges. Don't raise the white flag just yet! I think everyone understands the new Post 911 GI Bill is exceptional and extrodinary, even with its warts!

Military Times
Not everyone is facing GI Bill delays
By Rick Maze
A retired Navy chief petty officer has jumped in to defend the Veterans Affairs Department’s processing of Post-9/11 GI Bill payments, saying he received his benefits on time and without much fuss.

Kevin Ramey, a retired chief fire controlman attending Old Dominion University in Virginia, said Tuesday he applied months early for benefits and spent a lot of time making sure he was doing everything right.

“I am one of the 27,500 people who received benefits on time,” Ramey said. “A lot of pressure has been put on VA because of this program. I realize VA has an obligation to serve veterans, but to be fair, the veterans and the schools need to take some ownership as well.

“My advice to veterans is to be proactive. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. And share their experiences with fellow veterans and VA — the lessons learned this year will improve things in the future,” said Ramey, who retired from the Navy in 2008 with 20 years of service.

Ramey, attending graduate school to earn a master’s degree in public administration, said he applied as soon as VA started processing pre-enrollment claims in May and received his eligibility certificate June 30.

“This was not a delay. It was right in line with when VA said they would start sending out results,” he said.

Ramey said he picked a school after verifying it would be covered by GI Bill benefits and determining how many credits he would need to qualify for the monthly living stipend, which is paid only to whose who are attending more than half-time. He is taking six credits in a program where nine credits are a full load.

He enrolled July 3, providing all of his paperwork to the school — but Old Dominion did not send an enrollment certification to VA for 21 days, apparently while waiting for other veterans to also enroll.

Classes began Aug. 29, he said, and on Sept. 15 he received his book allowance and a pro-rated housing allowance for the days he attended school in August. That was the same day that the university received its tuition payment from VA.

“There were a few delays along the way but, by far, the biggest delay was caused by the school, not VA,” he said.

Keith Wilson, VA’s education service director, said last week that one issue could be that colleges and universities were holding onto enrollment certifications, which VA needs in order to finalize payments to institutions for tuition and fees, and payments to students for living stipends and book allowances.

Thursday is a big day for the Post-9/11 GI Bill; VA will be making living stipend payments for students whose claims have been fully approved. Payments will cover September and any days a student was enrolled in August.

Acknowledging that some students won’t be paid on Oct. 1, VA is working on a process for issuing emergency checks beginning Friday. The $3,000 payments will be advance pay, deducted from payments once they begin, VA officials said.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.