Trying To Build A Better G.I. Bill

Baker said it was crucial that the Obama administration increased the VA's budget from $98 billion to $113 billion in FY 2010, because that let the department add more programmers. They came not a moment too soon, in light of criticism leveled during a March 18 summit that assessed all VA claims processing for 2010, academic and otherwise. Its organizer, House Veterans' Affairs Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., described the existing system as an "insult to veterans" and said swift, effective computerization is the only solution.

"It looks like we are going backwards rather than forward," Filner said to the summit panel. "No matter how much we raise the budget, no matter how many people we hire, the backlog seems to get bigger."

Baker said much of the confusion last fall resulted from underestimating the "amended awards" benefits system, which determines how much money goes to the student through factors such as length of service and class credits being taken. Since the student gets a housing stipend check and the college gets tuition payments, the software is designed to match benefits with different states' college standards and definitions of tuition.

"We've been able to reach the bottom of those amended awards, and that's why they're going to be ready for the next version, but we had to take them out for this upcoming version," Baker said about the cautious optimism surrounding the first version of the software.

Some veterans groups, like Student Veterans of America, are pleased with the program's comprehensive coverage -- for those students whose benefits have been processed in full.

Last year there was widespread criticism over claims delays; recently, Paul Sullivan, spokesman for Veterans for Common Sense, also criticized the ongoing implementation of benefits because "education experts should have been consulted" in the drafting of the bill to streamline tuition processing.

The G.I. Bill was met with a deluge of claims when it debuted, and a backlog remains for some students and universities, said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who authored the 2008 law.

"The backlog for veterans' benefits was 600,000 even before the G.I. Bill," Webb said. "If they could do it for 7.8 million people after World War II before the age of computers, one would expect they could do it for these people."

Numbers from the Department of Veterans Affairs show some evidence benefits processing has gained steam. In January, approximately $237 million was paid to veterans for education claims, as opposed to approximately $58 million in September, during the second month of the program.

But while fewer than 12,000 accepted benefits claims for the spring semester have not been processed, approximately 58,000 of the approximately 435,000 applications have been rejected since the bill took effect for unspecified reasons.

Acting Under Secretary for Benefits Michael Walcoff, who started in the Veterans Benefits Administration during the Bush administration, said his group is paying close attention to avoid the mistakes of the fall semester.

"Whatever the law is I think veterans have a right to expect that we're going to do whatever is necessary for them to get their benefits," Walcoff said. "And the fact that we had a problem in the fall, I'm not going to say it's because the bill is so complex, I can't do that. I'm not going to blame that on anybody but us."

Eric Hilleman, director of Veterans of Foreign Wars' legislative service, credits Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki with generating momentum to work through the bill's complications when he came into office. Shinseki distributed $3,000 emergency loans in October to veterans whose claims had not been processed.

"Asking the VA to administer a benefit more complicated than existing processes was a tough challenge," Hilleman said. The Veterans Benefits Administration "has not had a sound track record with software programs."

With those advance checks due to begin recouping on April 15, the April 1 deadline is all the more urgent. Although Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command failed to meet its August 2009 deadline to design complete the GI Bill benefits software, Baker was confident that "pre-existing relationship" will help complete the final version of the claims processing software by December as a "long-term solution."

The VBA is so focused on meeting that computerizations deadline that its director of education services, Keith Wilson, spoke before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee on Feb. 25, advising against "significant changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill" before December.

To meet these demands for efficiency, Baker said they are taking a more step-by-step approach to release the software by sticking to milestones and prioritizing completion of simpler goals, like processing backlogged claims, before completing new ones to stay productive.

"We're going to run real claims through it by real claims examiners and make sure we have what we're looking for," Baker said.

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