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Confusion reigns over retroactive payments for underpaid GI Bill recipients

Money. (Pixabay/Released)

The Department of Veterans Affairs has no plans to retroactively pay student veterans who might get lower monthly housing stipends than they are legally entitled to receive during the next year.

The incorrect payments that will be made during the next year are a result of setbacks in implementing a new “Forever” GI Bill – a major expansion of veterans’ education benefits that Congress passed last year.

Part of the new GI Bill changed how veterans’ housing allowances are calculated – they’re now supposed to be based on where veterans take classes, rather than defaulting to their school’s main campus. The change was supposed to be made by Aug. 1, 2018, but information technology problems have now set back implementation to Dec. 1, 2019.

The affected veterans should be getting paid larger housing stipends because their location has a higher cost of living than where their school is based. For example, a student attending a University of Pennsylvania campus in San Francisco will receive a Philadelphia rate for their housing allowances during the next year rather than the San Francisco rate, which would be much higher.

It’s unknown how many veterans are in that situation and how much money they would be owed. A VA official said Thursday that the agency would determine those numbers and see whether it’s worth processing retroactive payments for them.

“We will have to assess the burden on schools,” said VA Undersecretary of Benefits Paul Lawrence. “We will have to assess the burden on [the Veterans Benefits Administration] and figure out the benefit for the folks we’re describing. It’s not clear what the difference will be.”

The VA announced the new Dec. 1, 2019 deadline Wednesday, igniting confusion among veterans groups and lawmakers about whether students would eventually receive retroactive payments back to Aug. 1, 2018. The VA issued contradictory statements to news media, veterans groups and staff members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

Lawrence conceded Thursday at a subcommittee hearing of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that the agency had no plans to retroactively pay that group of veterans. He acknowledged it only after the question had been asked repeatedly by multiple lawmakers.

At the same time Lawrence was testifying, the VA distributed a news release with the misleading title, “Every Single Veteran Will Be Made Whole.”

When Lawrence was initially asked at the hearing about whether the VA plans to pay students who were underpaid, he evaded discussing veterans who, under the new GI Bill, should be getting larger stipends based on their location. Instead, he focused on veterans who the VA does plan to pay retroactively.

Because of the IT problems this semester, the VA reverted to paying students their housing allowances based on 2017 rates that didn’t account for cost-of-living increases in 2018. Veterans who received less money than they should have been paid because of it will get a retroactive payment for the amount they are owed, Lawrence said. The agency plans to send those payments out to students sometime in January.

When Lawrence said, “Each and every veteran on the post-9/11 GI Bill will be made 100 percent whole,” he meant those students who received lower housing allowances in fall 2018 because the VA used the 2017 rate.

His lack of response about veterans affected by the setback on the new housing calculation prompted frustration from lawmakers and staff on the House VA committee.

“I’m having trouble getting that answer out of you,” said Rep. Scott Peters, D-Calif.

Lawrence responded: “It’s not my intention to be evasive.”

He finally described the VA’s plans for those students while under questioning from Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House VA committee, who pressed him for details.

“Are we going to look back and follow the law and pay them?” Roe asked. “I know it’s a lot of work and it’s complicated, but I want to make sure we get is straight here today.”

After Lawrence admitted the VA had no plans in place to do so, he pledged to work with the committee to see whether making the retroactive payments is “in the best interest of student veterans.” He told lawmakers it would add to the VA’s workload.

“It’s not our intent to harm veterans,” Lawrence said. “We also have to think about the broad veteran population and determine whether it yields any benefits, or just work.”

Lawrence and Roe discussed the possibility of the VA presenting a legislative proposal to Congress that would move the enactment date to Dec. 1, 2019, for the housing calculation change – meaning the agency wouldn’t be indebted to students affected by the delay.

Some lawmakers criticized the VA for deciding not to retroactively pay some students without gaining approval from Congress.

“If you’re unable to meet the statutory requirements, you need to come before the Congress of the United States to have those altered,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo. “You can’t simply change the law yourself if you’re unable to meet your obligations.”

As the House VA committee and its staff struggled to understand the VA’s position Thursday morning, a committee aide said it likely also created confusion among the student veteran population who didn’t understand what they would – and would not – be paid retroactively.

“My fear is student vets out there will read about these things on Facebook or somewhere and not know what’s right,” the aide said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “That’s not fair to them.”


© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

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