Tens of thousands of veterans of the recent wars have been waiting for payments under the newly enacted Post 9/11 GI Bill, which was the largest expansion of education benefits since World War II.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki says the veterans should be focusing on their studies rather than worrying about money.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said Friday he's hopeful that many of the tens of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans awaiting payment under the new GI Bill will get paid next month.
Shinseki said veterans were right in complaining about delays under the newly enacted Post 9/11 GI Bill, which was the largest expansion of education benefits since World War II.
He said a good portion of the delays stem from the wait as universities send in final counts on veterans' class work after drop-and-add periods end. He's hopeful that as that period ends, most veterans will get issues resolved in October.
"We're very much using this as sort of a lessons learned process for how we adjust next time," Shinseki said.
Meanwhile, the agency has reassigned staff members and has claims processors working overtime. He said the process will be automated next year, which should make it more efficient. He said the agency is also working with Congress and veterans service organizations on possible solutions.
Since May 1, the VA has said that more than 277,000 claims for benefits have been filed under the new GI Bill, and more than a quarter of those are pending. The average processing time is 34 days.
Under the bill, the maximum benefit allows eligible veterans to attend a public college or university for free for four years, provides a monthly housing stipend, and up to $1,000 a year for books.
"This is good news that kids are taking advantage of it. They're lining up to go to school. This is wonderful," Shinseki said.
Shinseki spoke in an interview with The Associated Press after delivering an address at the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference.
During the speech, he addressed the growing number of disability claims the agency needs to process, which is approaching one million. The backlog has created a financial burden for veterans waiting months — or sometimes even more than a year — for a claim to be processed.
Shinseki said he and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are working under President Barack Obama's directive to create a unified electronic record to be used by the Pentagon and VA, which will eliminate the claims problems. But he said it will take two years to develop.
"I'm personally committed to reducing the processing times of disability claims," he said.