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Federal watchdog: VA leadership failures are to blame for GI Bill payment issues

Airman Dalton Shank, 5th Bomb Wing public affairs specialist, reads pamphlets on the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., March 10, 2017. A higher education can be achieved with little to no cost by utilizing the services offered through the Air Force. (Airman 1st Class Alyssa M. Akers/U.S. Air Force)

A lack of accountable leadership was to blame for errors that led to thousands of veterans who receive GI Bill benefits getting late or incorrect payments last year, a federal watchdog agency said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs didn’t have a designated official overseeing the project to implement portions of the new Forever GI Bill, VA Inspector General Michael Missal wrote in a report released Wednesday. The leadership gaps resulted in “unclear communication,” as well as “inadequately defined expectations, roles and responsibilities,” the report reads.

The Forever GI Bill, approved by Congress in 2017, is a major expansion of veterans’ education benefits. When officials went to make the necessary changes to its information technology systems last fall, they faced critical errors that resulted in late and incorrect monthly living stipends for student veterans.

In some cases, the delays left veterans scrambling to pay their rent and other bills.

The problems were the subject of a House hearing last year, and 13 lawmakers wrote Missal requesting a probe into what led to the failures.

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“The IG report confirms what we all suspected: a clear failure in leadership to properly oversee administration of GI benefits,” said Rep. Ann Kuster, D-N.H., who sat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs during the last Congress. “This is unfortunately an all too familiar problem at the VA, and we must ensure senior leadership act proactively and with the urgency necessary to effectively support our men and women who have served.”

In November 2018, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie named Paul Lawrence, VA undersecretary for benefits, as the official accountable for implementing the Forever GI Bill.

After an initial deadline of August 2018, the implementation efforts are estimated to be complete by Dec. 1, 2019, the VA said. The agency said it has made “solid progress” so far, including sending retroactive payments to all student veterans who faced delays last year. But the VA hasn’t provided an accounting of the total amount paid, nor the number of veterans affected.

The VA said it’s also establishing a new office to “lead integration of all business, technical and functional activities” of the Forever GI Bill, and it awarded a new contract to Accenture Federal Services LLC for the IT work.

As a result of the widespread problems last year, Congress passed the Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act, which requires the VA to send reports on its progress. Missal wrote Wednesday that his office would continue to monitor the agency’s actions.

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© 2019 the Stars and Stripes

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