A major expansion of veterans’ education benefits — a protracted process beset by communication and information technology challenges — is finally on track to launch next month, Department of Veterans Affairs officials testified Wednesday before a House committee panel.
Last year, the VA said it would hire 200 temporary workers and shell out $70 million to implement the “Forever” GI bill, which contains 34 changes to veterans’ education benefits and boosts spending by $3 billion for 10 years. Higher-than-anticipated costs has been one of a number of problems that the agency faced in the yearlong charge to implement the plan, which most recently had a July 16 target date that had to be postponed.
“This is a complex, heavy-lift effort,” retired Maj. Gen. Robert Worley II, director of VA education services, told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs subpanel on economic opportunity. “We made very good progress to date. We didn’t get to the (July 16) date we were hoping for, we need to slip that about a month and that’s where we are. We have a handful of defects left.”
Worley, who testified alongside a witness panel of VA officials, went to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to update lawmakers on implementation of the H.R. 3218, the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act. The effort, which was named for the author of the original GI Bill of Rights, increases payments to veterans with less than one year of active-duty service, restores benefits to veterans whose schools abruptly close, awards full GI Bill benefits to all Purple Heart recipients and increases aid for veterans pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees, among other things.
It was dubbed the “Forever” GI Bill by supporters because it ends a 15-year limit on education benefits for veterans whose last discharge or release from active duty came on or after Jan. 1, 2013. Advocates have called it the most sweeping expansion of veterans education benefits in a decade.
“It is critical that we work to ensure that this bill is implemented in a way that is consistent with Congress’ intent and that veterans receive the benefits in a timely and consistent manner,” Rep. Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, chairman of the subcommittee on economic opportunity, said in opening remarks for Wednesday’s hearing.
The bill was signed into law Aug. 16, 2017, and most of its provisions go into effect Aug. 1. Of the 34 measures in the bill, 22 require “significant changes” to the VA’s IT systems. The agency determined costs to program its IT systems to recognize the changes in benefits would cost about $70 million — an amount more than double the $30 million originally estimated for the task.
By late last year, Worley said the VA was in the process of hiring 200 temporary employees who would process claims by hand until the IT system was improved with a 40- to 50-person team that would be responsible for deciding which veterans would be eligible for increased aid for STEM degrees. Worley and other VA officials said late last year that they were confident the expansion would be fully in place before the start of the 2018-2019 school year.
“We expect a wave of enrollments to come in between now and the early part of the fall, so that will be an increased workload, and that’s why we have more people and overtime scheduled and those kinds of things,” Worley said. “We will need to do some reworks for enrollments that come in between now and mid-August.”
He also said he would rate his group’s performance implementing the plan at an ‘8’ on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being perfect.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure that the experience of the veteran is seamless,” Worley said.
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